This week, we’re highlighting three VR for Good Creators Lab projects making their world premiere at SXSW. Yesterday, we took you behind the scenes of The Evolution of Testicles, a lighthearted yet poignant look at the need for greater awareness of male cancer in order to spur research, self-examinations, and preventative care. Today, we sit down with Emblematic Group Director & Chief Opportunity Creator Eren Aksu, who teamed up with Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to produce One Eighty—the story of Vijai Kumari, who spent 20 years behind bars for a crime she didn’t commit, and her son Kanhaiya’s quest to free her.
Why did you apply to take part in Oculus VR for Good’s Creators Lab program? What has the experience been like thus far?
Eren Aksu: I had been working in social impact-oriented VR and immersive journalism for about two years when I applied to the program. I think it’s the best use case for VR, and I think these immersive experiences really help change the world through changing the perspective of people on issues that are difficult to understand. I was so happy to find out that I was accepted into the inaugural Creators Lab and very excited to help create a story with a non-profit I hadn’t worked with before. The experience of the program was incredible! I’m not going to lie—there were some tough times while getting to the finish line, and even times when I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to complete and premiere our piece One Eighty. But here we are at SXSW, one of my favorite festivals, showcasing our film to some of the most creative people in the world. It’s honestly been a dream come true for me.
What first drew you to VR as a creative space?
EA: I was building augmented reality experiences back in 2011 and 2012 and sneaking into conferences like the AWE and CES, trying to learn more about the future of content and bring museums and national heritage sites to life by having historic characters walk around these areas. We would do things like bring Thomas Jefferson to life in Charlottesville, Virginia using AR and have him tell you about how and why he built the University of Virginia in person. We would build museums where the curators would come out of the paintings and tell you why they curated the spaces in the way that they did. I knew then that I had to continue telling stories in the AR/VR space but also knew I had to be closer to where the technology I was using was being created, so I moved to Los Angeles in 2014.
At the time, I was working on a couple of my own creative projects with my incredibly talented buddy Serhan Ulkumen and volunteering at different events at USC. Within a few months, I met Nonny de la Peña at an Entertainment Technology Center event being hosted by Ken Williams and Phil Lelyveld, as she was completing Project Syria. I remember thinking that this was the best use of VR I had seen and being half-Turkish, half-American and a complete history geek, I knew I would do anything to be part of building experiences for social impact using immersive technologies like VR. I started volunteering at the Interactive Media Research Labs at USC with Nonny, went to Sundance shortly after to showcase Project Syria, and have helped build up Emblematic from the four people we were back then to the 20 or so people that we are now. Over the past four years, I’ve been able to produce and direct countless experiences and have traveled to over 20 countries and over 100 cities, sharing my experiences in and out of VR with the world. It has been an amazing ride, and I’m so happy that I took a chance and moved to LA on a gut feeling. VR/AR changed my life. If there are any other creators out there looking to make a risky move into an industry that they think is the future, I would encourage them to do it and seize the opportunity.
What has it been like to work with Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative? How (if at all) has the experience changed the way you think about access to justice and reform around the world?
EA: I couldn’t have asked for a better partner nonprofit to work with, and I’m very grateful to Oculus for pairing us up. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative are an honest, hardworking, modest, kind, and super intelligent group of people who come from a wide range of backgrounds, all working tirelessly to help people in the Commonwealth learn their rights and help save the lives of some people who are unaware of the systems working around them, using justice as their tool. Working with Raja Bagga, Niyati Singh, and Sanjoy Hazarika on creating this film was wonderful, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We went through some tough times creating the film, but eventually it came together, and we’re all very happy with the results. We all worked hard on this project, and we hope that we were able to do justice to Vijai and Kanhaiya’s story. We hope that, through this piece, we can raise awareness around “under-trials” all over the world. India has extensive laws and is an amazing country, but like all countries, there are systems in place that can be improved. We hope that, through the film, the public becomes aware of some of these issues around access to justice and the legal system in India, so that we can accelerate the solutions to some of the problems the Indian government is working on as well.
Why was VR the right medium for this particular story? Would this project have been possible in a different format?
EA: Not every story has to be created in VR, but some stories really work best using it as a medium. We felt as though taking people into such a different culture, different way of life, different set of events and circumstances like Vijai and Kanhaiya’s could only be best experienced through virtual reality. Some of the issues and themes mentioned in the film like access to justice, under-trials, false imprisonment, and the relentless effort of Kanhaiya to save his mother from incarceration could be effectively told in VR, so we chose their story to work on. Through their personal story, we feel as though people will really be able to understand the broader issues at stake on a human and emotional level—and hopefully empathize in a way that would be very difficult to achieve using other mediums. You can step into someone’s life using VR. Walking in their shoes for 10 minutes can change your life and motivate you to act to improve the world.
What was your first experience with VR? How has your appreciation of and comfort with the medium changed over time?
EA: My first experience with VR was when I tried the first Oculus Rift dev kit from the Kickstarter campaign, which had just arrived at my buddy’s office in Newport Beach. He showed me the now historic but still memorable Unity Tuscany Demo, and I remember thinking, “Wow, this is going to change the world.” At the time, we were building AR experiences through tablets and smart phones, so you can imagine my shock when I was completely transported into a new realm where I couldn’t see my hands or my body. It was surreal.
Since then, our industry has come a very long way. I remember when we had to build our own headsets at Emblematic, having to travel back and forth from San Francisco every week with two Pelican cases full of gear, a snowboard case full of tripods, and a massive server connected to 24 motion capture cameras with duct-taped and stapled headsets—and this was still in 2014! Now I can have the same experience by just plugging my Rift into my laptop. I feel like I’ve always been comfortable with VR, but my appreciation for the technology has only been growing over time. There’s a new development either on the content or hardware side almost every week, and it’s very exciting to be part of a medium that’s changing continuously. I feel like we’re still at the beginning of this technological revolution, and that VR/AR/MR/DR/CR/XR—whatever you want to call it—is going to improve and become a bigger part of our daily lives. I think our kids are going to laugh when we talk about having to hold up our phones to do AR, or seeing the size of some of the first VR headsets we used to develop content in. Very excited for what the future holds in this industry.
What was it like to work with Vijai and Kanhaiya Kumari?
EA: Vijai and Kanhaiya have both been through so much. It was a real challenge to convey their story and their perspectives through a 10-minute VR documentary. Our only hope is that we were able to do their story justice using VR as a medium. But that’s the beauty of VR: Letting people live someone else’s life for 10 minutes is an incredibly effective way of helping them understand complicated and multi-layered issues and narratives. It was an amazing and humbling experience to be able to work with two real-life heroes like Vijai and Kanhaiya. Even after having spent 20 years in jail, witnessing how Vijai lives her life, proud as a mother and completely inspiring as a person to be around, was incredible. Visiting the village in which Vijai lived, seeing her day-to-day life, and then traveling around India to film various parts of their story was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I was proud to be a part of. Working with Kanhaiya was also completely awe-inspiring. Being born in prison and then relentlessly pursuing a path he knew nothing about to help get his mother out of prison—it was unreal, and I don’t think I’ll ever come across two people as courageous as them again.
How did you navigate cultural differences and/or language barriers while telling their story?
EA: We worked for close to 10 days with them, spending almost every hour together to put the distinct parts of their stories together while not speaking their local dialect or Hindi in general. This process was difficult but since we were so motivated to share their story with the world, we figured out ways to communicate and share our thoughts and feelings with one another. CHRI was crucial in helping us understand the local culture and navigate through the cultural differences and language barriers. After transcribing and translating their whole story into English from the local dialect, we then had to translate the literal English translation we got into language we thought it would be easier for our viewers to understand. We stayed true to their descriptions of the events and were able to create an experience that didn’t use any recreations with actors and/or actresses and only the real characters. Being raised in Istanbul, Turkey and having been educated in the US, I think of myself as very adaptable to diverse cultures and countries around the world, so I felt comfortable in India and in the local areas we visited. But I cannot stress the importance of having an ally such as the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and specifically people like Raja, Niyati, and Sanjoy to help guide us through India and help us with our every need throughout the creation of this film. I think it’s hard to be objective when telling stories through journalism or documentary whether one is adaptable or not, but we tried to be as transparent as possible and stay true to the original story.
I also must say this film would not have been possible without the help of Kevin Tsukii and Greg Byers, who were my partners in crime when creating this film. Kevin traveled to India with me and helped create this wonderful film as its director of photography, and Greg, our editor, worked with me day and night to help craft and organize the elements of the story to bring it to what it is now. I’m very grateful to them and to the rest of the One Eighty team for continuing to believe in the film throughout the hardships we had to endure while trying to bring it to life. A big shout-out to Amy Seidenwurm for never ceasing to believe in the production, Tim Gedemer and Travis Prater for their incredible audio work, Eben McCue for his amazing After Effects work, Devin Embil for helping every step along the way, Haim Mazar for his emotional and beautiful soundtrack, and the Legend 3D, Emblematic, and Oculus teams for helping in post-production. This really was a team effort—navigating through the cultural differences and being able to convey this important story only became possible through their hard work.
As an artist, how do you think VR will impact the ways in which we create and consume media in the years to come?
EA: I think VR is already impacting the ways in which we create and consume media. As storytellers and artists, we’re always looking for new ways to bring our viewers/participants closer to the stories we’re telling. VR/AR is just an extension of this tradition, and I think many storytellers in the future will only expand on what we’re trying to build as a medium today. I like to think of a future where our digital experiences and our physical experiences go hand-in-hand, a future where we can access these digital, immersive, and highly engaging stories immediately around us as we live our daily lives. I think we’re going to start thinking about stories in 360° and in volume more and more, and most artists will realize that VR and AR will be the main ways in which many people around the world will consume and experience stories. I think we’re still very much in the beginning of this evolution/revolution, and I’m very happy to help try and build this future for our children. Needless to say, they’ll really be the ones using this technology day-to-day, as most of them already feel more comfortable in virtual worlds and feel incredibly present in digital realities. I think this shift in creating and consuming content will come very organically to them, and I’m very excited to see what they do with the medium that we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of.
What’s next for you? Any exciting projects in the works?
EA: We have a lot of projects I’m excited about at Emblematic right now. We’re hoping to build a project around the tragic story of comfort women in the 1940s, where the Imperial Japanese Army created and imposed a systemic sexual slavery and rape network during the war, which destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of women in places like Korea, China, Philippines, and Indonesia. Unfortunately, this story is not as well-known as it should be, so I’m very excited to be working on this project this year and raise more awareness on the issue.
I’m producing a VR art installation currently at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which will hopefully become part of their permanent collection. We’re also building a platform called REACH that will help enable storytellers and journalists around the world to create volumetric and immersive experiences without having to pay the normally needed hundreds of thousands of dollars while making these high-end experiences. I think this tool will really help independent storytellers and documentary filmmakers build social impact-oriented stories more easily and help spread the good word on VR around the globe. I’m also trying to expand my thoughts and operations into places like Turkey, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia to help the incredibly talented engineering teams there and help teach them VR/AR storytelling techniques as well as upcoming technological advances, so that we as Middle Eastern people can also be represented to a higher degree in the creative arts and technological realm. I also have a secret project that I’m hoping to build, which would bring together two groups of people that have had a very difficult and rough history with one another and where they now choose to alienate each other, even though they have been brothers and sisters for centuries—but more updates on that later as it’s coming to life!
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
EA: Look into edge computing and 5G technologies coming together. I think that this will really push our industry forward exponentially. When my friend Jiten Dajee first mentioned edge computing to me, I was immediately very excited about the implications. Just this week, I had the opportunity to go to the Research Labs at Qualcomm in San Diego to see the most recent advancements in edge computing, and I must say, the future might come even sooner than we expect. Think of a future where you don’t need any sensors, base stations, or calibration devices to do VR or AR—where you can access high-resolution, high-frame rate and volumetric/room-scale virtual/augmented/mixed reality content in your day-to-day life while walking around in your city, using centralized networks that you can access through 5G to process most of the things our phones or smart watches are trying to process today. I think this is where the future is headed, and I’m incredibly excited to be alive in this age, where the divide between the digital and the physical will no longer exist.
Thanks for sharing your insights, Eren. We can’t wait to share One Eighty with even more people on the Oculus Platform.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the third and final installment in the SXSW edition of our VR Visionaries series.
— The Oculus Team