Discovering the guardians of nature in VR

A student from Nabaitavo District School in Fiji tries VR for the first time. (Photo credit: Rachael Imam)

In April, an immersive storytelling project will launch across nine schools in the island nation of Fiji. The pilot program, called “Beyond the Stars,” is geared toward tackling malnutrition and restoring people’s pride in traditional diets, via VR and gamification. The name “Beyond the Stars” was inspired by the stories of local Fijians who use the night sky and constellations to find their way home.

In the Pacific Islands, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are the leading cause of death. Cheap, imported, nutrition-poor foods including instant noodles and sugary drinks have had a negative impact on traditional diets, and are linked to devastating levels of diabetes, heart disease, amputation and even death. Health and nutrition experts in the South Pacific believe many of these NCD-related issues are preventable.

“Beyond the Stars” is an education program that incorporates storytelling, innovative technology and play-based learning tools to inspire children in Fiji to adopt healthy living habits, self-educate on subjects from their school curriculum and consider the impact their actions have on the environment.

Set across the backdrop of the Pacific Islands, the “Beyond the Stars” experience takes students across islands, through mountains and into underwater caves to search for legendary sacred relics that have been imbued with the wisdom of an ancient civilization. This knowledge is the key to restoring health and prosperity in the region and preserving the natural beauty of the land.

In the VR experience, the hero is the protagonist urging children to make choices in the story world — a consistent theme used to underline the importance of decision-making when it comes to healthy living and nutrition.

Discovering the power and potential of VR as an impactful storytelling tool has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career as a journalist. I spent two decades at NPR News producing national and international broadcasts including NPR’s “Weekend Edition, “Tell Me More” and “Morning Edition,” where I helped shape the newsmagazines and was responsible for decisions that required elaborate coordination such as broadcasts from Baghdad, Kabul, New Orleans and Ferguson, Missouri.

I left NPR in 2015 and joined the open innovation space. Working with SecondMuse, we designed Legends, a global immersive storytelling call-out around healthy eating in the South Pacific, funded by the innovationXchange of the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The selected pilot programs, produced by storytelling agencies in Sydney and Melbourne, will launch in late April.

Tash Tan is the visionary behind “Beyond the Stars” and one of the founding partners of the creative technology agency S1T2, based in Sydney. Tan, who specializes in user experience, creative design and digital strategy, just returned from two weeks in Fiji together with Allan Soutaris of SecondMuse as they continued socializing the project with educators, students, and health and nutrition experts.

“Beyond the Stars” is an educational game that uses storytelling and interactive technologies. (Courtesy of S1T2)

Throughout the design phase, Tan and Soutaris collaborated with Fijian Health and Education Ministries to incorporate relevant nutrition curriculum into the storytelling project. “We’ve worked closely with educators, cultural advisors and local artists to ensure the program is very much a product of Fiji for Fiji,” says Soutaris, director of the Legends project, which includes “Beyond the Stars.” “Without the valuable insight provided by schools and communities, I don’t believe the program would resonate nearly as much as it has so far. There is a real sense of magic to the narrative that could have only come from an approach such as this.”

We caught up with Tash Tan following his recent return from Fiji to learn more about the project and the response from the community.

1. Tell us about the genesis of “Beyond the Stars.”

When you travel to the Pacific Islands and see for yourself what effect NCDs have on the region, you cannot help but feel a sense of responsibility and leave with a desire to do whatever you can to change the situation. And, contrary to the lack of progress being made to combat NCDs directly, improvements in technology infrastructure and bandwidth within certain countries in the Pacific — such as Fiji, where our pilot is based — present a unique opportunity to use technology as the impetus for change.

Tash Tan (right in red shirt) at the VR/AR Hack in Canberra, Australia, October 2016.

In October 2016, a hackathon was held at the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s innovationXchange in Canberra. Building on ideas that emerged from the hack, we put forward a solution called “Beyond the Stars” that proposed to utilize storytelling enriched by new technology to fight the NCD crisis by inspiring children in the Pacific to adopt healthy living habits and rekindle their passion for their own tradition and culinary heritage.

2. Share some of the key VR techniques, and what the response has been from students.

One of the key VR storytelling elements we have introduced into the narrative is Masi — a flying tapa cloth. Masi is the companion that guides our heroes on their VR journey. He is a bit cheeky and likes to play games with our hero. In one scene, for example, Masi imitates your movements, accentuating your agency over the world. This in some ways makes the fictional world feel more real — you are the protagonist who has a reciprocal relationship with the characters in VR.

Another exciting aspect is the blurring of fiction and reality. In the final scene, a book is revealed in VR which is the last thing you see before you take off the headset. After removing the headset, each child is given their own “Beyond the Stars” book, transposing the magic of the virtual world into that object. This book then becomes their compendium for the story universe, and is something they can cherish and keep long after the VR experience.

A student from Stella Maris Primary School in Fiji tests the “Beyond the Stars” VR experience. (Photo credit: Rachael Imam)

3. How have educators responded so far?

Teachers and students have been equally excited about the program as it is something that is as much a first for Fiji as it is a world first. The way the program directly incorporates aspects of the school curriculum and national policies into the interactive story means that motivating children to learn is simple and effective. In a manner similar to the way “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” share their characters, stories and universes over multiple mediums, we use transmedia storytelling to imbue a sense of wonder in all our platforms from the immersive cutting edge to the accessible lo-fi.

Students from Waiqanake Primary School in Fiji playing the “Beyond the Stars” mobile game. (Photo credit: Rachael Imam)

The play-based learning tools that are being supplied as part of the program are also a significant improvement on prior teaching methods. From initial reports and evaluations, we’ve found that this approach is proving to be immensely rewarding even in an educational context as children are not only able to articulate the narrative of “Beyond the Stars,” they are also able to demonstrate an understanding of the program learnings and impact outcomes behind the narrative.

4. How do you hope “Beyond the Stars” will inspire action in students and bring back pride in tradition and healthier diets?

We believe that action starts with empowerment. In this sense, we are using technology to enrich our story by allowing the story world to be interactive. Through this, each child becomes a storymaker or storyteller of their own. They are not just watching characters, but living and experiencing the universe for themselves.

The VR experience takes children into a magical cave where they discover the magic of the guardians. (Courtesy of S1T2)

In this virtual interactive story, children have the chance to try and try again in a safe environment, but also to reach the realization that everyone has the power to make a difference. This application of gamification methodology is essential to teaching healthy living because we are faced with decisions and choices every day on what to eat, how to live our lives, and our adoption of local tradition and culture.

Davar Ardalan is the founder of IVOW, a storytelling agency powered by AI and culture. She’s also senior advisor to the Legends project in the South Pacific along with Ben Kreimer, IVOW’s director of storytelling technology. Ardalan was formerly the director of storytelling and engagement at SecondMuse and an award-winning journalist for National Public Radio from 1993 to 2015.

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