Most of the energy spent to date on virtual reality has been around gaming and entertainment. Oculus is rolling out a program with the goal of using VR as an inspiration for social change.

Dubbed VR for Good, the program launches with two pilots.

In the first, the Facebook-owned company is connecting students at nine San Francisco Bay Area high schools with professional filmmakers, the aim of which is to have the youngsters produce 3-to-5 minute 360 videos about their local communities and what is important to them. Oculus is donating gear to the schools, consisting ofSamsung Gear VR headsets, Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphones, Ricoh Theta S 360 cameras, plus access to editing software. And the company is putting students and educators in touch with VR film “mentors.”

In the second For Good program, yet-to-be-chosen non-profit organizations will be given a chance to showcase their social missions through 360 videos. Oculus will match the non-profits with ten filmmakers and once again supply the gear and expertise, in this case including professional Nokia OZO cameras valued at $60,000 each, along with post production support, a travel budget, and one-on-one mentorship.

The non-profits can apply the end of May. Organizations selected will participate in a two-day bootcamp July 26-27, with the first videos to be unveiled in January 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival.

Oculus is sinking $1 million as a starting point for the VR for Good initiative, which if successful it hopes to spread through other projects around the country.

Facebook has an incentive  beyond the social good, of course. A major challenge for Oculus, and for that matter all the other companies evangelizing virtual reality or augmented reality as immersive new mediums — Google, HTC, Sony, Microsoft among them — is to get people to experience the technologies and then create in this brand-new medium.

Facebook believes VR can play a vital role in the company’s stated goal of connecting people around the world.

“Projects like this are going to bear fruit in the very long run,” says Eugene Wei, the head of video at Oculus.

In picking the Bay Area schools, Oculus considered a variety of factors: notably schools with classes and teachers where such a program would fit, schools Facebook already had some relationship with through existing initiatives, as well as communities that are underrepresented in so-called STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields.

One of the participating educators, Daniel Spinka, who teaches a graphics design class and is director of the Visual Arts Academy at Oakland High School, divided his class of around 25 students into two groups, each of which are producing their 360 film. One concerns poverty in the area, the other is more focused on arts and culture. The student projects are expected to take six weeks.

“If you give the kids real world problems, they’ll step up,” Spinka says, adding that the school plans to continue to use the donated gear in the future because they provide “rich tools to get kids to think critically.”

Spinka says he’ll grade students on their participation during the process, not the finished projects.

Lauren Burmaster, the program lead for VR for Good at Oculus, says the student films will be showcased on Facebook and on Oculus.

The mentors aren’t paid. One of them, VR filmmaker Jessical Kantor, who met the Oakland students and students at a second area high school, Arroyo High in San Lorenzo, Calif., in person and is now communicating with them via Skype, says she is getting a “personal reward of seeing how they think and work.”

Filmmaker Lex Halaby, who has produced VR experiences for brands such asBudweiser, Funny Or Die, Warner Brothers, ABC, and Ford says the kids are quick studies.


“It’s amazing to see how quickly they’ve picked up the in’s and out’s of the technology. With major players such as YouTube supporting the format, almost all of (the students) have seen 360 experiences but many had not thought through what went into making them.”

And 360 filmmaking does require different thinking: “Stories that work wonders in traditional mediums just don’t translate into VR–from concept all the way up to execution,” says Samantha Storr, executive producer at Vrse.works, a virtual reality production studio.

The differences, though, could work to the student’s advantage, Oculus’ Wei suggests. “Some of the most groundbreaking VR films will be made by people coming to it fresh. And the reason is just that they won’t have any habits in the filmmaking world that they need to break.”

Email: ebag @usatoday.com; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaigon Twitter

Bay Area schools participating in VR For Good

ARROYO HIGH SCHOOL
Oakland High School
Fremont High School
Coliseum College Prep Academy
Thurgood Marshall High School
City Arts and Technology Academy
Sequoia High School
Menlo Atherton High School
East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy (EPAPA)
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