Member Expertise: Gabo Arora Explains How Virtual Reality Can be an Effective Storytelling Tool
Over the years, Brooklyn Creative League has been home to scores of film makers, editors, screenwriters, documentarians, and video production companies. As new technologies evolve, many of our members are using new technologies to create immersive multimedia experiences that engage audiences in powerful new ways.
BCL member Gabo Arora is an award-winning filmmaker, creative technologist and Founder/CEO of LIGHTSHED, a storytelling, technology and research studio focusing on emerging technologies currently known as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and artificial intelligence (AI). We sat down with him recently to talk about his work, and how joining our Gowanus coworking space helped him stay energized and productive during the pandemic.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Learning in an Immersive Experience Can Help Transform Behaviors in Real Life
Tell us a little bit about your work.
Gabo Arora: My work takes emerging technologies—virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and machine learning—and uses them to tell stories that generate a social impact. A lot of my work incorporates elements of documentary and nonfiction storytelling, combined with new technologies, to create work that wouldn’t otherwise be considered storytelling.
For example, I do a lot of work with advocacy groups and social service organizations to create training videos. Normally, you hear “training video” and your eyes glaze over, but when you use virtual reality or augmented reality, those training videos suddenly get a lot more interesting because you’re in a 3D world. And if you can interact in a virtual world, that immersive experience can lead to pretty profound changes in behavior, which is the whole point of training.
What does virtual-reality training look like?
Great question. Recently, I did a project with the consulting firm Accenture, which has a whole practice area that supports child welfare agencies. They brought us in because the data shows that black and brown children are taken at far higher rates than white children, and a lot of that comes down to implicit bias. If a client’s house is messy, or if they raise their voice, or give the social worker a funny look—if those clients are black or brown, social workers are much more likely to conclude that the children in that house are in danger.
But that’s the thing with implicit bias. It’s really hard to flesh out in any single incident. A lot of these situations are very difficult and there’s a lot of nuance involved in these judgements. We wanted to give people a simulated environment where they can stop, ask questions, and rewind the film, so that they can better understand their biases and blind spots.
What does the simulated training look like in real life—or, rather, in virtual life?
We ended up doing a whole home visit in virtual reality. Trainees would put on a VR headset and go through the process of knocking on someone’s door and asking them this set of questions. Meanwhile, we could create different scenarios for trainees—kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure video series—where they could get “real world” experience in a virtual environment.
When you have the VR gear on, it feels as real and cinematic as if you were knocking on someone’s door and they are looking you in the eye, while you ask them questions. So the final product ended up being a VR tool that Accenture could sell to the State of California, so they could have this nuanced, real-world-like training experience—but with more consistency and at lower cost versus live, in-person trainings.
How do you keep the experience from feeling cheesy? I’m thinking of all the training films I’ve been subjected to, and they were terrible.
Well, I’m a filmmaker first, so I bring lot of my documentary and filmmaking experience to the VR work. For the Accenture project, we worked with actors so that it felt believable for VR. And, by the way, acting in VR is very different than in two-dimensional film. In VR it’s a lot harder to do jump cuts and close-ups. Those are standard techniques in what I call the “flat medium” or flatties.
Since VR is immersive, it’s a lot more like theater than film. You can’t zoom in on a character, but you also pick up a lot more nuances and gestures. On one hand, it’s harder than film because if something feels false, it ends up, like totally fake. But the flip side of that is if it feels real, it *really* feels real.
When you get VR right, it gives you goosebumps. Because you embody it. It detects your senses and your brain is tricked into thinking you’re actually there and you’re actually having this conversation even though, you know, you just have the headset on.
Advocacy Work can Be Innovative
How did you get into this line of work?
Suddenly, here was this technology that brought all these threads together.
I started working for the United Nations after the 9/11 attacks. As a native New Yorker, I was really affected by 9/11 and the aftermath. My mom was trapped in one of the buildings near the World Trade Center, and she volunteered to help rescue workers. So that was a part of our day-to-day reality for several months. And I was like, “I can’t do what I was going to do before. I have to do something that’s going to make this better, you know?” So I took a job at the United Nations, doing humanitarian work. I was younger and more idealistic back then, and I needed to go out into the world to better understand other people and to have them understand Americans.
I was initially posted to Colombia, but I ended up working in Haiti, Zambia, and several other countries. Eventually, I ended up back at UN headquarters in 2011, where my role focused on more on policy advocacy. So I started thinking about ways we could be more innovative with our advocacy and I realized that we would write these compelling, detailed reports—but no one would read them. And it was because the UN’s advocacy models and communications platforms hadn’t kept up with the times. The internet had changed everything, and now mobile technologies—and we just weren’t keeping up.
At the time, Brandon Stanton’s blog, Humans of New York was huge, and I remember going into a meeting and I said, “You know, this one person has more followers and reach than all of the UN’s accounts combined. Why don’t we start by working with this person?” And they’re like, “Yeah. Great. Go for it. Get in touch with him.”
So I did get in touch, and it was great. Brandon is an amazing person, and he became a mentor, teaching me a lot about storytelling and what that looks like when you’re working in different mediums. For example, working on YouTube is so different than working with other video media.
My next thing was, “Why don’t we try to do a viral video?” So we ended up doing a video about the petroleum industry in the Amazon, called Keep the Oil in the Ground. I traveled all around the Amazon region, documenting the human rights and environmental abuses tied to the oil industry. It was harrowing, crazy, depressing stuff. I mean, once you go there and you experience that, you just feel like, okay so clear this is wrong, you know?
Anyway, that video ended up getting about 2 million views, which was terrific. So I thought, “Well, I’ve done this Humans of New York thing, I’ve done this YouTube thing. What’s next?” Around this time, which is probably 2013 or 2014, I was falling in love with immersive theater—this was the era of Sleep No More—and a friend mentioned that Samsung had just released this VR headset, and I was like, “That’s it! That’s the one.”
Suddenly, here was this technology that brought all these threads together. People would understand the mission. I could draw on my human rights experience, my experience as a film maker, and I could do it in a way that could communicate nuance and subtlety that just wasn’t possible with previous technologies.
Don’t you just love when all of the pieces fall into place? Let’s shift the conversation a bit. You’re a relatively new member here at BCL, how has being in our Brooklyn coworking space helped you navigate the pandemic?
I found myself really isolated at home. I came to BCL because I just needed another space to be able to think differently, to get out of my apartment.
You know, it’s been a real savior. I found myself really isolated at home. I came to BCL because I just needed another space to be able to think differently, to get out of my apartment. As an entrepreneur, I respect the hustle, you know? But it’s hard to tap into that energy when you’re at home.
When I saw that you guys were still open and finding a way to make it work—safely and scientifically, I should add—I was like, “Okay. I shouldn’t be so despondent. I shouldn’t just think there’s only one way, but I think there is another way.”
You guys were a big inspiration for me deciding to do a shoot during covid. Like you, we didn’t just throw caution to the wind. We did it the smart way: We had rapid testing every day, and we took every precaution that you could possibly imagine. And we ended up taking on that extra expense. But it totally paid off, you know, and it was incredible. And I was so happy that we could do that. But a lot of it is that you see other people here going, “Okay. Life is going on.”
That’s really awesome to hear. Where do you see yourself and your company in five years?
I would hope to see Lightshed playing more of a though leader role, hopefully with more influence on public policy. The kind of advocacy-based storytelling we do is really important, and I think that VR has the potential to really move the needle. There are some great documentaries out there, but do they really move you to change? Not really. And I think that has to do with the fact that it’s still a passive medium: You’re watching, not participating.
With VR, that gets you much closer to embodying the lived experience in its full sensory experience. It allows us to encode those connections at a much deeper level. From an advocacy perspective, that’s incredibly powerful. It totally shifts your relationship to information and experience.
We look forward to bringing you more member news and project updates in the New Year. Want to share projects, accomplishments, and advice with our community? Reach out to Neil or Erin!