Reinventing the World with Community Media Through XR, VR, and Immersive Storytelling
An Interview with Kathy Bisbee, Founder of Public VR Lab at BIG, 2019 Recipient of the Nextant Legacy Prize from the Virtual World Society
In 2017, Kathy Bisbee, the Founder of Public VR Lab, went to the Presidential Inauguration. Sitting in the crowd, she noticed the emotional divide between each person on that lawn and the marchers already gathered for the Women’s March the following day. As a part of a community media team from Massachusetts, when she interviewed over 75 groups of people at the Inauguration and at the Woman’s March and spoke with hundreds of men and women. From her conversations, she felt the common thread between everyone. It is much greater than just a sense of belonging. She felt the common thread of what it means to be an American. To dissent. To agree. To protest. To share stories.
“We are still a nation of immigrants. This is also what makes us hard-working Americans who love our country.” — Kathy Bisbee
What if you could stand before 10 people coming from different cultural backgrounds, go into the year in which they arrived in this country, and let them take you by the hand to show you their experience of “arrival”? Would you feel something? At the end of the story, would you be inspired to share your experience or your ancestor’s experience of arrival into this country, too?
This is the power of Virtual Reality and Immersive Storytelling. It takes you into the world of the storyteller. It shares the experience with you rather than telling you the story. You are a part of this experience. The storyteller takes you on a journey.
As the Salvadorian cook tells his story of arrival with his family, you sense the sadness at leaving behind relatives, you sense the longing under his breath of the American dream, you sense every drop of his sweat poured into weathering the initial hardships of arrival.
Through immersive storytelling, the vulnerability, openness, and the emotions of our immigrant “arrival” experience can be felt across generations, across continents, and across racial divides.
The Public VR Lab is a digital multi-media lab inside BIG or Brookline Interactive Group that grants members of the community access to VR, AR, and Immersive Storytelling film equipment to create their own digital stories. “Arrival” is one of the projects that showcase the immigrant’s experiences of arrival in this country by using Immersive Storytelling. This lab was co-founded by Kathy Bisbee, who is also the Executive Director at the Brookline Interactive Group.
In August of this year, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Kathy Bisbee, a fellow at MIT Open Documentary Lab, the 2019 recipient of Nextant Legacy Award by VWS, for a conversation about her work. Not only did she share her most exciting projects with me, but she also shared her journeys of implementing these projects with me.
Can you give us a little background on BIG, the organization that you are a part of, and the work that this organization does inside your community in Boston?
BIG is short for Brookline Interactive Group, an organization that’s been around for 35 years. In our community, our organization is primarily known as the public television station that helps to provide tools and educational partnership with businesses inside our community. We also connect businesses and members of our community with schools, libraries, parks, local businesses, and local government agencies. Our cable television network serves educational and other content created by our community to members of our community. Throughout the year, we run many programs to benefit members of our community across different age groups. These programs include workshops, scholarships, media equipment rental, training programs, community journalism, job training, and other programs.
What is the Public VR Lab? What purpose does it serve inside the community of Boston?
The Public VR lab is one of the initiatives at BIG. At the Public VR lab, we grant access to new technologies such as VR, and XR to the community for Immersive Storytelling. One part of the Public VR lab serves as an emerging media lab for members of the community to create storytelling projects. Community members gain access to VR, XR film equipment, hold educational workshops and coordinate events. Another part of the Public VR lab is collaborations with local businesses, city governments, and schools to provide opportunities to explore new technologies such as VR, XR, and Immersive Storytelling for the benefit of the community. Projects such as community journalism with the Boston Globe, Job Training Program with local high schools, production grants for members of the community, and StoryVox are some examples of these partnerships.
You recently received the 2019 Nextant Legacy Prize from Virtual World Society, how does it feel to be given the award by Tom Furness, the founder of VWS and the “grandfather of virtual reality”?
It is a great honor to receive this prize from Virtual World Society. I never expected to be bestowed such an honor when I was working on our initiatives at the Pubic VR Lab. More than anything, I’m very excited about the work itself that allowed me to receive such an honor. It is this work that permeates everything we do at the Public VR Lab: giving underrepresented voices access to VR, XR, and Immersive Storytelling tools to enable them to change the world by telling their stories inside their communities.
If you had to pick one project, which one would you say is the project that is the most representative of underrepresented voices at the Public VR Lab?
Almost all of the programs we run have an inclusive element to them. However, the “Arrival” project is the one that is garnering some attention at the moment. We put Immersive Storytelling tools such as VR, XR, and 360 degrees in front of members of our community to capture their “Arrival” experiences into this country. Last fall, at Hubweek, a Boston-area festival to celebrate the convergence of art, technology, and science, our “Arrival” project was featured with a mobile studio. We were able to invite participants into the mobile studio after they viewed other immigrant stories to tell their own “Arrival” stories in real-time. These participants can also view everyone else’s “Arrival” stories for inspiration. The power of Immersive Storytelling was demonstrated by the fact that after viewing everyone’s “Arrival” stories, many participants were inspired enough to volunteer to tell their own stories afterward.
What is the FCC ruling that will impact BIG’s funding going forward?
Last week, we were very disappointed to hear about the FCC ruling. This ruling effectively undermines the 1984 Telecommunications Act passed into law by Congress and will take away billions of dollars from, local municipalities and community media organizations like ours. It sets a dangerous precedent of allowing private businesses to use the public right of way without paying their fair share into the community for its use. Since our organization depends on this type of funding to fund most of our projects for the community, the impact of this ruling will be devastating to the operation of our organization. At a time when the work done by our Public VR lab is being recognized by Virtual Reality World, global organizations, and city governments, the funding loss will mean that we may need to close most of our programs at the Public VR lab leaving only minimal community services. If this happens, it will not only be a huge loss to our organization but it will also be a huge loss to everyone in our community, about 1500 media centers across the country.
I’m very sorry about the FCC ruling that might change BIG’s funding. Can you tell us a more about how the work at Public VR lab resonated with world leaders in 2017?
In December 2017, we partnered with Data Vised, a New-York-based company that is using data to help provide companies with data visualization tools in VR to create an Immersive Storytelling experience about global air pollution. We together created a 3D globe experience with air pollution data that we shared to 800 world leaders at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. It was a great honor to be able to demonstrate the power of Immersive Storytelling to world leaders. After the presentation, we were honored to receive feedback that many participants expressed interest in finding out more about the work we did at the Public VR lab. They wanted to know how they can create similar Public VR Labs in their own countries to utilize the power of VR, XR, and Immersive Storytelling for social impact.
How does it feel to pioneer the work at Public VR Lab and have it be recognized by world leaders?
It’s always a great honor to have anyone recognize the power of data visualization, XR, VR, and Immersive Storytelling. Standing in front of world leaders was an inspiring experience. But, we, our team, was confident that the story we told was going to leave an impression on everyone. We never expected the wonderful response and interest that we received after the event. From this event, the possibility emerged of seeing Public VR labs established around the world to grant more people access to VR, XR, and Immersive Storytelling tools to tell their stories. This possibility gives me great hope that using technology, we can help people in communities around the world.
This year, the Public VR Lab also had a collaboration with the Boston Globe. Can you tell me more about this collaboration? Why was this project important for BIG and the Public VR Lab?
In 2016, at a time when I wanted to share BIG’s initiative creating VR content with other media organization, I bumped into Jeff Delviscio, Director, Multimedia and Creative at the Boston Globe’s STAT news team. At the time, I was demonstrating the technology to a group of journalists and media makers. Jeff became interested in the work that we were doing at Public VR Lab. We ended up co-creating three 360 films to share the power of Immersive Storytelling with Boston residents and viewers worldwide.
One of the stories we did was to show what it felt like to work in a high-security lab on the Ebola virus in Boston’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases lab. In this story, we even placed the camera inside a hazmat suit to show viewers what it felt like to wear the hazmat suit through a chemical shower before working inside the Ebola lab. When we were filming the project, we joked that the story felt so real that we were afraid to contract the Ebola virus just from watching it, especially since our team left immediately after the production for a Red Sox baseball game!
For BIG and the Public VR Lab, this project allowed us to demonstrate the power of Immersive Storytelling to the residents of Boston. After this project, many people discovered our lab through the program. Local businesses started to recognize the power of this technology. Many businesses showed interested in using the Public VR lab to create educational content for the public.
Finally, would you tell us more about the scholarship program for local high school students?
We recently launched at the Public VR Lab, an XR scholarship fund to students to pursue Immersive Storytelling in higher education with the intent of them gaining opportunities in the film-making industry as a career. Through an Arts2Work program we are building, we are working to help to connect our job training students in local high schools with media companies through a pre-apprenticeship program. At the end of the program, we will then help them with job placement. For many high students from low income, minority backgrounds, being able to work in an emerging technology field is a life-changing opportunity. Each year, we designate 60% of our participants in the program to come from such backgrounds.
About the Author
Jun Wu is a Content Writer for Technology, AI, Data Science, Psychology, and Parenting. She has a background in programming and statistics. On her spare time, she writes poetry and blogs on her website.