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5 questions with virtual reality filmmakers Mike Cuales and Arthur Earnest

Searching for a way to capture various local creatives and their environments using 360 VR video as a storytelling device, Mike Cuales and Arthur Earnest launched the Raleigh Spaces Project. At this year’s Hopscotch Design Festival, they are going to be co-hosting a virtual reality workshop. We asked them about the exciting new medium, filmmaking, and donuts.

Mike Cuales and Arthur Earnest

Images by Ben Scott.

1. You’ve been experimenting a lot with 360 degree virtual reality lately. What drew you to the technology?

Mike: About four years ago, I stumbled across what was one of the first commercially available 360 video camera rigs at a popular trade show. Just seeing the array of six GoPro cameras crammed into a 3D-printed aircraft grade nylon holder was more than enough to get my geek attention…then I saw what it could do. There was clear potential in having the ability to give the end-user control of where and when they were looking, just by holding up their smart-phone (magic window) or using a mouse/trackpad to look around. Initial experiences with Google Cardboard were not all that exciting to me.

But after the awakening that was experiencing playback on an Oculus Rift or Gear VR, I was sold. The technology kept getting better at an exponential rate. Seeing the work that my childhood friend, Chris Milk (Within) was doing early on with the medium was inspiring and really demonstrated the potential of VR. The primary draw for me is the promise of giving the audience a better sense of immersion, deeper connection to the content and experience of being there.

Arthur: It all started in a Bojangles’ parking lot for me! I ran into a fellow filmmaker, Tim Kiernan, who had just gotten a pair of Google Cardboard. There was barely any 360 content at this point so basically it was just me surrounded by a virtual menu. That it was truly just a phone, and literally a piece of folded cardboard with plastic lenses, kind of blew my mind. Mike and I work together at NC State making videos and I realized he was already experimenting with the format, trying to slip it into certain coursework.

We began discussing its uses, he from a more educational/technical viewpoint and me from a more narrative frame of mind. I was planning on making a mini-documentary about an artist friend of mine, Luke Buchanan, at this time. I had spent a lot of time thinking about how to visually represent Luke’s art and his story when we realized that 360 video was the way. Luke’s art is about space and 360 video was a way to immerse you into what he’s talking about.


2. What are its advantages and limitations as a filmmaking medium?

Mike: We’re asking a lot from our audience and end-users. It’s not just a matter of hitting the on button and flipping channels. We’re asking people to cave off time, find a space (preferably with a swivel chair) adjust and wear an object on their head and be physically active during the experience. That’s a big commitment. But with some of the great content rolling out, the payoff is well worth the overhead.

Arthur: The main advantage is the total immersion of the viewer into a space. I think as a storytelling device that allows a greater chance of engaging the viewer on an empathetic level. The truth is the language of 360 video is still being developed. We’re still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Depending on your point of view, that’s either an advantage or a limitation itself. I think the major obstacle right now is how people view the final videos. People are still learning to interact with 360 videos so even the act of how to watch them still presents a learning curve, whether it be on the phone or with a Google Cardboard or an Oculus or even on the desktop.

3. What projects are you currently working on that you’re excited about?

Mike: We have so many exciting active and upcoming VR projects at NC State University. From sports facility management and fire ecology to exploring applications to improving cultural competencies, the possibilities seem endless. However, I’m most excited about a personal project I’m working on with US2020 RTP, a local non-profit organization that is part of the “national effort to match STEM mentors with underrepresented minorities, girls, and low-income students by the year 2020.” We’re using virtual reality as a recruiting tool to show prospective mentors how easy and important it is to engage our youth. The next phase will be producing a series of virtual field-trips that features local professionals active in STEM-related careers.

Arthur: Like I said, there is still so much to learn about storytelling using this format. So basically just being able to take what I learn on one project and applying it to the next and hoping that it’s better than the one before is a goal. I think there are so many stories here—in the Triangle, our home, so many interesting people. I’m excited by trying to tell their stories in 360 video.

4. What are you hoping people will come away with after attending your workshop?

Mike/Arthur: We’re hoping participants come away with a desire to explore, question, and then create. 360 video and virtual reality is not the answer to everything. We want artists, designers, developers, and creatives to dig in and be inspired by what’s been done…then do more.

5. And most importantly, Arthur, as a self-professed “donut connoisseur,” where is your favorite place in the Triangle to get donuts? And how do you feel about Rise?

Arthur: Ha! I do love me some Rise! I’ll take their creme brûlée donut any day of the week! But c’mon—Monuts, Duck (Donuts), Krispy Kreme…I’m not really going to discriminate!

You can catch Arthur and Mike’s workshop on Thursday, September 8 at 3:00 p.m. at Clearscapes. Be sure to check out the entire Hopscotch Design Festival lineup and visit the schedule page so you can plan out your festival. And if you haven’t already, make sure to buy tickets before they sell out.

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