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Is virtual reality the right tool to raise awareness effectively?

An Interview with Pete Speller , Senior Engagement Manager at Greenpeace and speaker at ORAMA on the 1st of April

· Interviews,VR for Good

Greenpeace has been using technology to bring issues into public eye for a long time, encouraging viewers to learn about the challenges of humanity.

We met with Pete Speller to discuss how Greenpeace have been using virtual reality, outlining opportunities and challenges of 360 degrees videos.

Could you tell us a bit about how Greenpeace has been using VR projects to promote charity causes?

One of the founding principles of Greenpeace is the act of bearing witness, the refusal to be ignorant of injustice. But the way we define this is more than just being aware, as one of the Greenpeace founders Ben Metcalfe said "once you are aware of an injustice you cannot claim ignorance as an excuse for inaction. You make an ethical choice: to act, or not". In all of our work, that choice to act is key.

Right from the beginning of Greenpeace we've used communications technology to bring the issues we witness to the public, to allow people all over the world to bear witness and make their own choice to act. Virtual reality and 360 video offers us a new and incredibly powerful way to bring people closer to both the issues we campaign against and the environments we are trying to protect. We've made a few 360 videos over the last year on a range of issues, our first production took people on a journey to the Arctic on board our icebreaker the Arctic Sunrise. We've also taken people to visit an Indigenous community in northern Russia threatened by oil spills from pipelines. 

Later this year we are releasing a multi-sensory virtual reality experience telling the story of the Munduruku people in the Amazon rainforest and their fight against the hydroelectric dams that threaten to destroy their home. Primarily we've been using these videos with our street campaign teams to engage members of the public in cities and at festivals across the world, offering them a chance to be transported to a new place and to take an action to protect it, varying from signing a petition, sending an email to a company or politician or giving a donation. This has proven to be very successful in most cases, though I think that VR is such a new technology and a completely different medium to anything we've worked with before that we've still got a lot to learn about how to use it most effectively. 

We are also releasing a Google Cardboard VR app for iOS and Android that will feature our VR and 360 video content alongside campaign information and actions to take in support of the campaign.


Can you tell us about the challenges you faced in producing a VR documentary?

There are a lot of challenges to making VR documentaries. For an NGO like Greenpeace, the cost is one of the biggest; making VR and 360 videos is very expensive. Particularly for us, as we are funded entirely by donations, we don't accept money from governments or companies, whenever we spend any money we have to think "could we justify this to the people that donate to us?". With VR being a relatively untested medium, we have to be careful, though we've been lucky to get some grant funding from trusts and foundations specifically to experiment with VR.

There are also challenges posed by how new VR and 360 video is. The old rules of film making don't apply in the same way so we, alongside everyone else, are trying to work out the new rules. That said, while there's always a strong temptation to do lots of big, spectacular shots, the one thing that remains is storytelling. That, for me, should always be first and foremost. Without a good story, the "wow" factor wears off pretty quickly and you don't get the re-engagement, which is emerging as an important metric for measuring the impact of VR. We've, again, been very lucky to work with AlchemyVR over the last year who bring the enormous experience of Atlantic Productions with them to producing natural history documentaries.

Something that hasn't been an enormous challenge for us is the logistics. We operate in 55 countries each with a dedicated logistics team, we have field research teams going to very remote and extreme locations regularly and we have three ships - the Rainbow Warrior, the Esperanza and the Arctic Sunrise. This means it's actually not a huge challenge for us to reach almost any part of the planet. Again, working with AlchemyVR has been great as they are used to operating in harsh and extreme environments as well.

What is VR/AR project that you would like to work on in 2017?

There are so many ideas! I think the next challenge for us will be bringing interactivity to our VR experiences. We've been doing a lot of 360 video but I think it's crucial to maintain interest that the immersion you get from 360 video develops into interactivity as well. So this means working more with technologies that are unfamiliar to us like stereophotogrammetry to map the places we want to feature and recreate them virtually. I'm also interested in exploring the potential of combining VR experiences with immersive theatre to explore much more deeply some of the major issues facing the planet. I'm interested in exploring ways to bring people together to learn, understand and potentially find solutions to the planetary boundaries crisis we are facing.

In terms of specific stories from Greenpeace, I think one of the under-reported areas of our work are the two volunteer forest firefighting teams we have in Russia and Indonesia. They take on the incredibly dangerous task of fighting the fires in the Indonesian rainforest and the Russian boreal forest. These fires burn both on the surface but also deep underground in the peat soil releasing vast quantities of toxic smoke and destroying huge areas of forest. Tackling these fires is incredibly dangerous but also absolutely crucial to maintain the health of the forest, the people in the communities around the forest and the climate. Indonesia's worst year for fires was in 2000 when they were responsible for up to 40% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, 2015 came very close to this.

Do you want to know more about Greenpeace and other VR project


Join Pete at ORAMA on the 1st of April.

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