Milosz Pierwola is a New York-based humanitarian explorer who quit his high paid but ultimately unsatisfying job as a lawyer to travel the world. Through encountering cultures from all corners of the globe, Milosz became compelled to help those less fortunate than him. An opportunity arose for Milosz to film his travels and climbing adventures in Virtual Reality/360° video, to be shared with hospitals where paralysed, elderly, and disabled people were able to relive his experiences as if they were there. So began the project 'World in 360' - bringing the world to people who are otherwise unable to explore it.
From Central Park to Everest Base Camp, or the Gunks to Mt. Washington, Milosz has built up a library of 360 videos for entertainment, educational or therapeutic purposes. We sent him some questions to find out more about his work and the potential of virtual reality films...
When and how did you first realise the benefits of 360/VR films for bringing adventure to those unable to experience it themselves?
Shortly after completing a 450km paddle journey on the Little Nahanni River, I was spending time with a friend in Portland, Oregon. While there, I received a tweet from a 360 VR company and was invited to meet up in anticipation of creating some content for them in the wilderness. I had never experienced Virtual Reality before, and thought it would be a gimmick similar to Nintendo's 1990s Virtual Boy game system.
However, when I put on the VR headset, I felt like I stepped through a portal into another dimension. The video was high enough quality that it felt like I was looking through the visor of a futuristic device that was merely transmitting video input of what was happening around me. Even the most minute motions of my head were synchronised with what I was seeing. When I turned my head left, the view panned left, and the same for right, up, down, etc. – it was perfectly synchronised with no lag or other indication that the device I was looking through was responding to the motions of my head, and seemed very real. My jaw was on the floor and I instantly realised that for the first time in my life I could "literally put someone in my shoes."
This was a momentous time in my life because it meant I could express the joy of my most precious experiences, and immerse the viewer in a way that was never possible before. It was something I desperately sought after I gave up my career as an attorney and discovered my friends and family distancing themselves from me. They couldn't understand why I would give it all up for the pursuit of exploring, which did not even require a high school education. It was during these moments; watching the Aurora Borealis dance above me across the entirety of the atmosphere, feeling the ground shake as massive waves pounded the beach with surfers ripping across them, smiling through several layers of winter clothing as I raced across icy trails on a dog-sled…those moments made everything worth it. Though I could show photos, videos, and write about these, it was simply not possible to communicate the emotion of standing in what felt in every way like a fantasy.
Then, it dawned on me that the ability to communicate experiences reached far beyond my friends and family, and I could share with people who never even believed they had the power or opportunity. I imagined someone who was paralysed placing the headset on and suddenly being able to walk, or climb, or swim, and even fly – what would that feel like? Just as I felt that I had for the first time experienced life after I made the impossible decision to leave my law office for the last time, such an experience had every chance of making a profound change in another person's life. The experience of overcoming perceived impossible challenges to reach achievements I could not imagine in my life had a profound effect on me. It opened my eyes to a world that was in front of me the entire time. I immediately thought of people who accomplished the impossible such as blind mountaineer Eric Weihenmeyer and quadriplegic mountaineer Jamie Andrew. Who knows what life could be ignited with such a simple spark as sharing an experience?
When I took the VR headset off, it felt as if I received a profound message and life purpose. I immediately set out to obtain a 360 camera and begin producing the adventures I experienced. My friend and owner of the company Clothing Arts appreciated my vision and donated the headsets I continue to use today. In the time that followed, I set challenges for myself such as filming one video per day for 30 days and editing exotic and experimental videos such as Luminous Trees and Kaleidoscope Music. In addition, I worked with the fascinating properties of spherical photos to produce twisted, fractal images with fascinating results. Though there was no support for the cameras, no software for working with the new complex footage, and little sponsor interest, I continued in spite and discovered the Himalayan Stove Project that partnered with me to follow the Everest Base Camp trek. Today, I am editing footage from this destination into a documentary that can reach many more people.
How much effort is involved in carrying the equipment to outdoor locations and producing the films for Worldin360?
Filming 360 video takes significant effort and has unique challenges. No longer is the camera-man behind the camera and, with dynamic scenes such as hiking or climbing, it must be taken into consideration how the operator of the camera is integrated into the footage. My solution was to film in a way that demonstrates my experience and emotion reaching one of my life's most ambitious goals. Another challenge is holding the camera, as my arm is visibly extended at any point I am filming. I tried solutions such as using a tripod or wearing a harness that hoists the camera about a metre away from me. However, the harness was not a viable option on the already arduous trek and bounced wildly, and a tripod limited me in how I could capture a scene – not to mention the time it would take to set this up during an already highly challenging trek. My solution came organically; I discovered during my visits to orphanages, hospitals, inpatient care centres, etc. that patients appreciated me "having my arm around them" during these experiences. I took the idea and ran with it; and it feels as if I am there with my arm around your shoulders as you look around at the fascinating world before you. Finally, there is the additional weight of the camera and accessories; the camera itself weighs 0.65 kg / 1.43 lbs. and requires a mono-pod, additional batteries and chargers, and must be carried safely.
One additional complication for this project was the fact that I literally did not know whether the camera worked until I got home. The camera was shipped too late and I had to delay my flight one day to receive it. Only at that time was I able to get batteries to turn it on, on the way to the airport. A fun complication was the lack of LCD screen or any other way to monitor the footage while on the trek. So, I was shooting completely blind and hoping that whatever I captured was going to work when I got home…
Some would argue that the 360 trend is just a fad/a phase that will die out. In what ways do you think that adventure/humanitarian applications can help ensure its longevity? Why is it so effective in these applications?
I do not see 360 as a trend or fad, and whether it is or is not doesn't matter because it exists. Effectively, anyone today can use a mobile device or a computer to view 360 videos, and it is a feature that does not carry additional cost. In addition, options such as Google Cardboard exist that can create a VR headset out of mostly any mobile device. On the other side of the spectrum, VR/360 is a rapidly growing market with countless new cameras, software, and applications appearing on the market every day. Though it may drop in popularity as time passes, these applications are here to stay and my humanitarian initiative, as well as others it can inspire, will stand to benefit from it moving forward. The point of creating these experiences and making them available at Worldin360.com is to share, not to make a profit. I have already received so much gratitude, and there is so much more to experiment with and create.
Virtual Reality is effective in humanitarian applications because it is the first technology that fully immerses a viewer. Veterans have expressed a profound benefit; for example I had a burn victim request a cold, wintery scene, after which they reported meaningful relief. Firefighters are using it to train recruits in catastrophic scenarios. Employers use the technology to train employees without incurring costs of renting or owning real equipment. It is the first technology that can separate a viewer from his environment and immerse them in a completely artificial alternative, and the applications are infinite.
What outdoor areas/experiences did you film, and where did you share them?
The real application of Worldin360.com is taking the VR headsets to hospitals, orphanages, inpatient care centres, elderly facilities, and anywhere there are individuals who are limited either physically, economically, or simply in their mind. You can visit the site to see the collection of VR/360 experiences I have created. Among these, you will find alpine winter climbing in heavy weather, riding a fat bike through NYC, flying in a drone inside of a mine, and so much more. I bring these experiences with me whenever I travel and organise programs that allow me to bring it to large groups.
It is actually interesting to note that in the beginning I had to work hard just to bring this technology to patients. Back then, not many people knew what it was. And here I was bringing something that I was strapping to people's heads, people who were in critical condition, weakened, old, or otherwise fragile. In addition, what was it that I was showing them; not many busy administrators had the time to review the contents of this head accessory. It was a struggle simply to organise to come in and allow patients to try this technology. However, it literally brought people to tears watching as someone who never imagined they could even sit up in their own bed, was suddenly leaning in their wheelchair as they bicycled through Times Square. The first time is always cautious, but I have always been welcomed back!
How do people react to the stories in general? I have heard that children in particular can get very involved and even experience fear, etc.!
Reactions to VR/360 are very interesting, but always happy. I have had viewers cry at what they were seeing, laugh hysterically, spin around without stopping, and just express joy physically. The bicycling video specifically produces a reaction where viewers lean as they watch it, leaning into the turns to compensate centripetal force. This is fascinating especially in individuals who have never ridden a bicycle before. It shows us that physical reactions like that are instinctual and not learned. There are of course reports of dizziness or vertigo, but I have produced a range of videos that compensate for every person's personal preference. For example, when starting with someone who is in a wheelchair, I always show the rappelling off a cliff video. The reason for this is because in the video I am in a sitting position which does not change. There is very little motion aside from the slow rappel, and the view is spectacular and exciting with calming music. On the other hand, I also have videos such as exploring caves, with flashlights rapidly moving along dark corridors and causing significant deliberate disorientation. These videos have taught me a lot about what works with audiences and what doesn't. It has helped me structure the way I create content and the way I approach demonstrations.
Tell us a bit about the Everest 360 project. What was involved in the filming, and what do you hope to end up with?
The Everest 360 project was a huge undertaking. Once at Lukla, I met with my Sherpa, Pasang Temba Sherpa and we set out the same day. Because we were travelling to settlements off the main trail to Everest Base Camp, we meandered more than what a typical trek involved. In addition, I had three cameras on me at any given time; the main HD 360 camera for videos, a backup 360 camera for photos, and my DSLR for traditional photography and video. Every day involved getting up early and hiking all day, often longer than a regular hiking day and filming during these strenuous times. Then, upon arriving, I would have to scout our destination, get an introduction to the person we were scheduled to meet with (or be surprised with a stand-in!), then produce interview questions, set up the cameras and film while conducting the interview; often with my Sherpa interpreting for me. To say that this effort was extreme, would be an understatement.
The goal was to produce an experience which demonstrates to the average person that reaching the tallest mountain in the world is absolutely possible. I selected Mt. Everest as the destination for this documentary because of the reputation it has for challenging humanity's greatest champions. To the average person, Mt. Everest is a destination for top athletes, adrenaline addicts, and extreme people; but this is not true and I want to challenge this notion. I want to demonstrate through this documentary how accessible Mt. Everest Base Camp is, to inspire regular people to add it to their options for vacation. In this way, I seek to broaden the scope of World in 360 and use it as a tool to inspire anyone watching the videos that anything is possible, that programs like Himalayan Stove Project are still extremely successful and effective, that if a person like me can reach this place, then anyone can do anything.
Do you think 360/VR film will be more accessible to people in the future? At the moment it still seems like people don't fully understand the concept, perhaps!
Right now Virtual Reality is accessible to few people around the world. This is not the result of technological obstacles, however, because effectively any mobile phone today is capable of playing back 360 content. The challenge is in creating the headset for phones to effectively play back 360/VR videos. While solutions such as Google Cardboard exist, they still require shipment of the package that includes two special lenses necessary for viewing a screen mere centimetres away from your face. While the adoption of this technology may be slow, after all this is mostly an entertainment device, there is significant investment in it by companies such as Facebook, Google, Dell, Samsung, and many other major global corporations. This investment can be viewed as an indicator of how valuable the technology is for our future, and how widespread we can expect it to be.
What other mountains/adventures would you like to film in 360?
This project is just the beginning. What we are witnessing is a new way of experiencing entertainment similar to Television and Internet. Just like MTV went through its experimental stage with low-resolution computer graphics, wild and extreme video effects, and novel acts, I am certain that Virtual Reality has not even begun to be tapped for its potential. This is why I encourage everyone to experiment today, and to try new and wild ways of playing with this technology. My plans are to continue to take viewers along on expeditions to the world's most extreme environments; deep underwater cave networks, inside complex architectural monuments and visits to volcanos, space, the moon, and even other planets.
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