Virtual Reality Storytelling For Impact: Designing Research for G4C’s Latest White Paper

May 4, 2023 / by Jan Plass, Erinn Budd, Michaela Ternasky-Holland, Bruce Homer

Category: XR for Change

Can virtual reality be a tool for education and influence emotions like empathy? Have you ever considered how human rights issues can be investigated and explored through immersive storytelling? G4C is proud to release their latest white paper, Deepening Engagement and Learning Impact through Virtual Reality Activations, a capstone summary of research from the XR for Change initiative. It explores how XR technologies can address real-world challenges and drive social change.

Using the activity from G4C’s executive produced On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World)  – a virtual reality documentary on nuclear threat – as a case study, research was conducted across a series of screenings and activations for the project as part of a wide-reaching impact campaign designed to reach three core audiences: youth, the general public, and policymakers.

This white paper is a data compilation from multiple activations and a field guide that describes best practices for producing a successful VR activation. Featuring the voices of four co-authors, this blog provides insight into how the designing and conducting of the research integrated seamlessly into the creative direction and audience engagement with On the Morning You Wake’s (OTMYW) impact campaign.

On data analysis and putting research to practice

I have been researching the impact of digital media on learning for 25+ years, and I was very intrigued by the approach G4C took to the research for OTMYW and how they integrated research into a VR experience without breaking that experience. Such research in authentic settings is very important, yet we do not often get the opportunity to do this work at scale. So, when the opportunity presented itself to advise on such research, I knew I was interested.

We advised on the wording of survey items and response options, the design of the A/B testing, and the data analysis. As a co-author of this white paper, I feel that as researchers, we have a responsibility to be concerned with the question of how to help translate the results of our work for organizations, people, and governments so that they can benefit from the findings and apply them in their own work. This is sometimes described as knowledge mobilization, and in this case, it involved not the research results themselves but communicating the research methods and approaches we use to partner organizations so they can conduct their high-quality research in the context of their creative work. 

Creators and producers of impact campaigns with VR experiences often do not have many prior campaigns to base their work on. This report provides best practices and impact and engagement data from VR activations in many different settings and with different audiences. This will be invaluable to those who plan to produce similar experiences.

On the importance of planning, device management, and activation logistics

Traveling across the globe producing activations has 3 phases to it. It is important to assess the needs for localization before you are deep in the planning process. All of your assets should be localized to the language that most people within your target audience are native to, so if you are traveling to Tokyo, your project, wrap-around materials, and marketing should be available in Japanese. 

Before your arrival, yes, you need to have a run of show and floor plan layout. However, there are so many other things you have to consider that are often overlooked. This includes understanding your lighting, staffing, power sources, and the shipping of any physical assets. Having an understanding of your shipping times to and from the activation location will help create a timeline that your team can build off of to be successful. 

Once you are “boots on the ground” so to speak and begin to load in, oftentimes your plan will need to be adjusted based on a number of factors, including but not limited to participant traffic flow, power, and lighting. You will also need time to train the staff that will be managing the activation and use their training time as a soft launch. As the activation goes live, you will need to maintain a keen eye for production issues or troubleshooting that may occur, which may include things around layout, lighting, and device issues. After any successful production, you will have to load out your team and equipment. And this needs to be just as planned as the load-in – and will set you and your devices up for success for the next activation. 

With device management, getting set up with a device enrollment program (DEP) will save your team so much time. Using a DEP, at a glance you can see the operating system version, battery, and even remote restart if there are any issues. These systems allow you to deploy specific builds to specific devices. It is important that once a quarter, inventory is completed on your fleet to keep devices up to date, replenish any equipment that needs to be taken out, and set as a new level set for the coming months. 

Production sets the stage for immersive experiences. Without proper planning and load-in, you will not successfully tee up what is next for them. The production is an extension of the experience and it is important that we think about the world we are building physically, emotionally, and
digitally to truly give a great white glove service

On applying educational psychology and research in designing A/B testing

I have been interested in how media affects understanding since I was a graduate student studying how literacy influences children’s cognitive development. My more recent work has focused on digital media – in particular, how games and simulations can be designed to support learning. When G4C approached us to help study the impact of OTMYW, I was excited by the opportunity. It is such a high-quality production that takes advantage of the affordances of immersive VR. I was also intrigued by how the onboarding and aftercare surveys were created by the G4C team as wrap-around materials to be extensions of the entire OTMYW experience, which enhanced the emotional and educational impact of the documentary. This was a unique opportunity to study an incredibly rich experience and one with such an important message. 

Given my background in educational psychology, I was focused on helping to come up with the best possible ways to evaluate the impact of OTMYW. We had to make sure that the questions we were asking audience members provided the information we needed without having a negative effect on the experience. I also drew upon my experience as an educational researcher to help design the A/B testing, in which we compared VR and 2D-tablet experiences of the documentary. 

I got to spend a lot of time with the data we collected, compiling, coding, and conducting descriptive and inferential statistics. I then enjoyed working with the G4C team who were great at finding effective and attractive ways of presenting our findings for the report. 

I believe that the guidelines we have produced will be extremely helpful for others who wish to produce effective media experiences. Our research illustrates the importance of good design for engagement and emotional impact which enhances learning. I also hope, more broadly, that this project will serve as a model for how content producers and researchers can work together to study and create effective audience experiences for VR and other media.

On wrap-around materials and VR experiences for engagement and learning

I dropped out of college for nine months and performed as a dancer on Disney Cruise Line. I often think people associate entertainment with cheap thrills or surface-level experiences, but I think audience care and entertainment are key ingredients to impact, learning, and engagement. It was while working for Disney Cruise Line, Disneyland, and other theme parks that I realized the power of guest-centered immersion and interactivity. It’s why I am invested in the future of XR as an industry. 

For me, when I am creating or directing a VR experience, impact campaign, or museum exhibition, I always take into consideration the audience’s experience with the content or space. If the audience isn’t being taken into account within the fibers of what it is we are crafting, then the level of impact will lessen. 

Since 2016, the work I have done in XR has mainly been within a non-fiction genre, but my attention has recently moved to a more impactfocused methodology. When I think about the word impact, I am usually relating it back to a behavior shift or a conscious awareness that happens for audience members as a result of coming to a VR activation. 

An impact-focus methodology is not just about showcasing really well-designed content or compelling storytelling but it’s also considering the wrap-around experience outside of the headset or piece of content itself. It’s the process of onboarding the audience into the topic and themes of the content, as well as giving them aftercare to process, reflect, and even sometimes take action on the content that was experienced. 

What initially drew me to On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World) is the concept of showcasing an issue like nuclear weapons threat from a more human perspective. This VR documentary exposes people to ideas, concepts, belief systems, and events that they have never been able to learn about or show them a new angle or perspective of something they are aware of. I was excited to mold the activities and experience that the audience would take part in before and after the VR documentary in order to facilitate this process. 

The wrap-around materials that we have built are based on two pre-and post-experience surveys, but they have been re-mixed and adjusted in so many ways that it is dependent on the venue, demographic of the activation, and region that the activation is taking place in. 

For example, with the Museum of the Moving Image, we had a full gallery experience that gave people a deeper insight into the production, creative, and impact campaign of the project through behind-the-scenes video content and an audio-based website. On the other hand, we have also translated our pre-and post-surveys into languages like Norwegian and worked alongside Norwegian educators to craft a high school-based curriculum that aligned with their region’s specific values, grassroots activism, and policymaking process. 

This type of flexibility and scalability of the wrap-around experience, alongside the details within the floorplan, like where the audience will place their personal belongings, make up the foundation for creating an environment that allows the audience to be impacted by the VR documentary. 

G4C’s ultimate goal is to codify what we have learned into a practical toolkit to benefit future impact campaigns, especially those with a focus on informal learning. By proving that VR encourages audience engagement, learning, and impact, our hope is that this paper encourages XR creators, educators, and curators from cultural institutions to continue the advancement of immersive tech for good.

Download and access the white paper for a full synthesis of the research!

VR community and XR creators, and producers:

  • Field Guide – a curated resource highlighting the step-by-step process in setting up your own VR activation for museums, events, or the general public.

Educators, researchers, and academic community:

  • Impact Report – visualized summary of high-key findings and data analysis 

Erinn Budd: XR Production Manager
Erinn Budd is a multi-hyphenate creative and experiential producer. Her work meets at the cross-section of impact, technology, and immersive storytelling. Recently she has worked alongside brands such as Adidas, Spotify, and Katy Perry’s Las Vegas Residency: Play. In her free time, she is a skilled photographer, videographer, content creator, and cancer research advocate. 

Michaela Ternasky-Holland: XR Creative Strategist & Impact Producer
Michaela Ternasky-Holland is an Emmy, Webby, and Sheffield Doc/Fest award-winning XR/metaverse storyteller. Recently named one of the 100 Original Voices of XR, she creates non-fiction and socially impactful stories by using immersive and interactive technology. She focuses on the impact of the projects to move beyond the project itself. When she isn’t creating her own original projects, she consults for socially conscious companies and non-profit organizations on creative strategy and impact production. Her work has been featured by TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, Cannes Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, and The New York Public Library

She has created and collaborated on XR/metaverse projects, concerning but not limited to, surveillance technology, cerebral palsy, domestic gun violence, elimination of nuclear weapons, racial equity, and global access to education. 

Not only does she strive to be a part of purpose-driven projects that vocalize and educate about diversity in storytelling, but she also works in tandem with decision-makers, committees, and boards of directors that financially support, mentor, and create opportunities for those of all backgrounds.

Bruce Homer: Professor of Educational Psychology, City University of New York
Bruce D. Homer is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, where directs the Child Interactive Learning and Development (CHILD) Lab. He is also a founding partner of Marcy Peak, a research and design consultancy. Dr. Homer studies the uses of digital technologies, particularly simulations, games, and virtual reality for learning. His current research, funded by Lego Foundation, is an international study of how digital play can be designed to enhance wellbeing in children. Dr. Homer’s work has been funded by federal agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts, National Science Foundation, and the Institute for Educational Sciences, as well as by private foundations. He has authored over a hundred research articles, chapters, and conference proceedings, and is co-editor of the Handbook of Game-based Learning (MIT Press, 2020). Dr. Homer has collaborated with multiple industry partners, providing design insights and conducting research on impact and efficacy, and has given talks and workshop for parents and education groups on the role of technology in children’s learning and development.

Jan Plass: Co-Author; Paulette Goddard Chair in Digital Media and Learning Sciences, New York University
Dr. Jan L. Plass is a Professor at New York University and Paulette Goddard Chair in Digital Media and Learning Sciences. He is the founding director of the CREATE Consortium for Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technology in Education and co-director of the Games for Learning Institute. Dr. Plass’ draws from cognitive science, learning sciences, computer science, and design to envision, design, and study the future of learning with digital technologies, especially for underserved communities. He is the author of over 120 journal articles, chapters, and conference proceedings, has given more than 200 presentations, and is the lead editor of Cognitive Load Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and of the Handbook of Game-based Learning (MIT Press, 2020). Dr. Plass is a frequent national and international keynote speaker and advisor, helping governments and corporations increase the human capacity in an ecology of lifelong learning.

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