InstaVR Interviews: Meet the VR Practitioners
InstaVR Interviews is a blog series where we turn the spotlight on our customers. We find out why they create VR, how they use InstaVR, and what the future of VR will look like. To read more interviews, visit the InstaVR Interviews homepage.
Dr. Tarsem Singh Cooner, Department of Social Work and Social Care at the University of Birmingham, UK
Tarsem is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work, and Programme Director for BA Year 3. In 2011 Tarsem was awarded a Birmingham University Teaching Fellowship in recognition of his wide ranging and significant interventions in learning and teaching across the institution. In his work across the institution he has served on the Board of the Valuing Teaching at Birmingham initiative, the University Learning Environment Group and the University Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) Steering Group.
Tarsem has been instrumental in developing innovative learning approaches such as his mobile phone/tablet app to help social workers explore how to navigate the ethical issues of using social media in social work.
Tarsem is currently developing an approach to disseminating ethnographic research about child protection using 360-degree video apps.
To download Dr. Cooner’s apps from iTunes and Google Play, visit https://swcpp.weebly.com/360-degree-immersive-apps.html
Inspired by seeing 360-video on “The Gadget Show”; taking the research off the page to convey sense of presence to viewers
Question: Tell us why you decided to use VR for your child protective services research?
We were undertaking a research project in the UK into protecting children from all types of harm. The research took place over two years at two different local authorities. I wanted to present the research in a way that was more accessible and user friendly. I also wanted it to be more realistic and engaging than something conveyed using just text on a written page.
Our original idea was to create YouTube videos of talking heads. To be honest, we got to the stage where we thought everyone’s doing that and it isn’t conveying the sense of presence — tone, body language, atmosphere — that is present on a social work visit, particularly a child protection one.
We have a television show in England called “The Gadget Show.” I was watching it one evening and they were demonstrating 360-degree videos. I thought, this is the perfect way to convey what we as researchers are actually seeing in the field!
I could see immediately that the 360-degree videos could allow us to take viewers with us on a visit, where they could get a sense of the atmosphere, the interactions between parents, their children, get a layout of the home, the anxiety the social worker may feel etc. We wanted to create a resource that allowed the viewer to have “the best seat in the house” whilst accompanying us on a child protection visit.
So that’s what got me interested. I wanted to take the research off the page and convey a sense of presence for the viewer. I felt that by having a sense of presence, the viewer could learn from our research, in a realistic way, about what can create enablers and barriers to effective child protection work.
Research looks at organizational approach to social work, as well as how to prepare workers to achieve better outcomes
Question: Taking a step back, what is the goal of your research?
We’re working on a number of apps at the moment. For example, we’re looking at how the design of an organization can enable or impede effective child protection work. For instance, what happens when an organization values time spent developing relationships rather than on performance management tasks, which is more effective at creating safer environments for children and families? How does the philosophy of the organization influence supervision?
We’re also looking at the characteristics workers need to develop effective professional relationships. What kinds of things scare them and cause them to freeze, and not think outside the box and challenge poor parenting? What makes a social worker good at communicating and developing effective working relationships with children and parents in often highly fraught and challenging situations?
Using the 360 media with VR goggles, we have the ability to re-create situations from our research and convey them in a realistic way. For example, having someone shouting at you creates a sense of anxiety, engaging in this scenario using 360-degree videos enables us to throw the viewer in at the deep end where they can reflect on how they reacted and whether this resulted in them losing sight of the child. What we are able provide is an experience where the viewer is able to question how the anxiety provoking encounter impacted on their ability to function at a number of levels.
We also want to demonstrate good practices — illustrating how sitting lower than somebody else, adopting a good tone, body language to discuss awkward or challenging topics can lead to better relationship-based practice. Our research has demonstrated that if you’re valued at work, if you have good supervision, and you have time to develop relationships long term, better outcomes are produced for children and families. We want to use the apps to convey these messages in a manner that recreates as far as possible, experiences of real life situations.
Used a script on shoot day, but allowed for improv; will use branching sequences in the future, but wanted to keep file sizes manageable for today’s cellphones
Question: Can you discuss how you approached creating these apps?
This is something brand new that I was playing with. I’m responsible for filming, editing, and stitching the whole thing together. And so, I’d not done this before, and we couldn’t film actual research visits for very sound ethical reasons.
So what we did was work with real social workers and service users to re-enact scenes from our research experiences. The actors were people who had engaged with the child protection system from the practitioner and service user point of view, so they had a deep understanding of roles they needed to play.
Through analysis of our research we developed themes from the findings and created the scripts, but the scripts were flexible as long as we addressed the core issues. The interactions between the actors could be improvisational.
We hired a house and made sure it looked like one you’d typically find. Then during the day, we looked at the script and practised it. When we were ready to go, we filmed it. What we wanted to do, and what was critically important, was to try to demonstrate in real time the aspects of a visit that “enabled” or created “barriers” to effective child protection work.
What I also wanted to do was put in branching sequences. At different points you could stop the video and say, “What options would you take here?” That is something we will consider, but the trade off is file size. With branching options, you’ll end up with pretty huge file sizes. On the basis of Moore’s Law, we know what we develop today will become better as phone capacities increase in the near future, so watch this space!
1st person POV gives a feeling of presence, making viewer more part of the scene
Question: Why did you decide on 1st person POV approach?
When we think about 360 filming, your original thought is the 2D approach — you place the camera somewhere, and you see the social worker walking up to the house. That just doesn’t work. Conceptually, it won’t be the best use of 360.
So that’s where the idea of having you accompanying the researcher came up. We could take you, as the viewer along on the journey. So you walk to the house beside the researcher, you’re in the house, you’re able to follow the social worker and researcher around the house — you get a sense for what the visit and research observation is really like.
I think for anyone developing 360 videos, they have to consider the perspective from which they want the viewer to engage with the scene. Otherwise the viewer may not feel part of the action.
We Used a Go Pro Fusion; editing was done on Final Cut
Question: What hardware, software and other filming equipment did you use?
The camera I used was the Go Pro Fusion. The reason, after doing research, I found it to be the best camera for the price. I got a couple of ultrafast 128 GB Micro SD cards so it could cope with what we were filming. I think the quality is just beautiful.
With the Go Pro Fusion, you get a stick, so rather than using a gimbal, we just used the stick. I tried to hold the camera at eye level as much as possible, to give you the sense you were eye level with the different actors, or if you were sitting down, you’d get the feeling of what it would be like if someone was standing talking over you.
I used a MacBook Pro and Final Cut Pro for editing. I started with Premiere Pro, but I’m an Apple accredited editor, with years of experience using Final Cut. For me it just felt that the workflow is better in Final Cut.
Selected InstaVR for intuitive and easy to use nature; also allows Dr. Cooner to show other Academics how to build VR
Question: Can you talk a little bit about your Immersive University, a new teaching approach that incorporates VR?
When the University funded this part of the 360 production, I initially had to do a lot of explaining to the funding body. This was because I couldn’t demonstrate anything to them. Once they got the idea, they were and have been very, very supportive.
What I did first was use Adobe Animate + Google VR to develop 360 videos. Part of my bid for funding was that I would share the development process with other academics so they could explore the use of this approach in their own fields. When I was at that stage, I thought unless you’re acoder, you won’t be able to put this stuff together. It’s at that point that I started doing web searches to find an alternative, easier 360-degree video app development workflow.
I came across InstaVR and a couple of others. I looked at InstaVR and read the web site reviews. The best thing about InstaVR was the option to do the free trial. I found it really intuitive, it was very clear the steps you needed to take to develop the apps.
I tried to put myself in the shoes of a fellow academic. Let’s be honest — it’s still technically quite challenging to produce and edit the 360 videos. But InstaVR was the easiest platform I found for stitching the materials together to create the apps. So it should still be possible for my colleagues to be able to produce similar apps even if a small team is involved.
Getting the Pro account with the education discount makes a big difference. Having the educational price opens up the platform for academics to use. It met a criteria that was part of my grant application — I’d be able to demonstrate to other academics how to produce 360 materials. You don’t have to code anything and it’s very straightforward.
First distribution is via Google Cardboard, because of access and lack of tethering to a computer
Question: What is the distribution plan for the apps? How are you promoting it?
What I want is the ability for people to pick up and run with the apps with the minimum hardware
requirements. We bought 50 Google Cardboard headsets so we can use these with our apps to prepare our BA and MA Social Work students for the realities of social work child protection practice. For our students, they have the unique experience at the University of Birmingham of having not only access to the apps, but also to the tutors who carried out the research. They will have opportunities to learn from research and engage with the researchers to develop the knowledge, skills and approaches required for effective child protection work.
To help promote the project, the University are developing a web page for the project. In addition, we will also be developing the research project website further as well.
Once we have the official launch, we’ll be using the apps to engage with other practitioners, policy makers, students and academics using platforms such as Twitter. We want to discuss and share our research using the apps with the wider community to share knowledge of those elements that can improve child protection practices.
We’re also going to local child protection agencies to train their trainers to use the apps so they can use these resources with their students and practitioners. It opens an easy to use and different medium for practitioner development. The local agencies are also very interested in the supervision and organisational design apps we are developing. They have expressed an interest in using these with us to explore their current approaches and to see how their organisations can use our research to become more effective. Initial discussions and engagement suggest that allowing policy makers and managers to immerse themselves in 360-degree video scenarios allows them to experience in an empathic way, what enables or creates barriers in effective child protection work. This can lead to a greater understanding and motivation to create effective personal and organisational changes.
Still formulating how to quantify impact of VR, but end goal remains better outcomes for children in need
Question: Where do things go from here with your apps and research?
We want the students attending the University of Birmingham to have the most innovative and up to date research based teaching. We want to use new and upcoming teaching methods and technologies to prepare them to become the best social workers they can be.
We also want to see what impact this approach can have in the real world, that the investment in time, effort and creativity is making a change in the field. We’re at that stage now where colleagues within the wider university want to learn more about this 360-degree video approach to learning and research dissemination. But to justify more investment we want to quantify the impact. We’re still working on it, we’ve broken new ground and are learning very important lessons that should benefit a wide range of stakeholders. However, in this process, we’ve not lost sight of the fact that the end goal is to improve the lives of children and families in need.
Thank you to Dr. Tarsem Singh Cooner for his time and insight! For more on his research with VR, visit their project web site at https://swcpp.weebly.com/360-degree-immersive-apps.html