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One Startup’s Quest to Save Refugees With Virtual Reality

Written by techgoth

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Ryot’s name is intended to evoke both a Hindi peasant and a Silicon Valley-type disruption. The company represents a collision of documentary storytelling, technology, celebrity, and the aid industry. It’s the sort of odd mashup that can thrive in an era when traditional media outlets are scrambling to compete with content produced and distributed instantaneously, often by people with little training. Ryot is run by experienced filmmakers, but they enthusiastically embrace a figure-it-out-on-the-fly approach. Other companies, like Emblematic Group and Vrse, aim to produce mind-blowing VR experiences; Ryot’s goals are at once less artistic and more ambitious. “We’re going to build the world’s largest 360-degree news network,” Mooser says. “We’re going to evolve the news.”

To hear Mooser and Darg tell it, this evolution involves disposing with the kind of objectivity that traditional journalists hold dear. Ryot is unapologetically boosterish about the humanitarian industry, producing VR content for nonprofits at little or no cost and also suggesting that viewers of its films donate to aid organizations. Darg and Mooser envision a future in which journalists don’t simply document suffering but actively work to ease it, in which news consumers don’t merely read about humanitarian crises but rather transport themselves there via VR, then take action by donating to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on the ground, or by signing petitions. “VR can create empathy like never before,” Darg tells me. “It’s the ultimate fund-raising tool.”

At the core of Ryot’s ascension lies that much-trafficked word—empathy—and the promise of donor largesse it brings. The group is deeply intertwined with international NGOs, relationships born out of Darg’s and Mooser’s experiences in postearthquake Haiti. There Darg, a disaster responder since 2005, worked for Operation Blessing, while Mooser built schools for Artists for Peace and Justice, an NGO started by Paul Haggis, the former Scientologist and Oscar-winning screenwriter and director.

“We’re going to build the world’s largest 360-degree news network,” Ryot CEO Bryn Mooser says.

The two started the company because they felt traditional media were ignoring the efforts of the international aid industry. For Ryot’s first few years, its website consisted of blogs and traditional 2-D videos linked to donation pages, so that readers could donate to causes. The company also made short films that did well in festivals. Baseball in the Time of Cholera, about a youth baseball league Darg and Mooser started together in Haiti during a disease outbreak, won a jury award at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012. More recently, Ryot secured an HBO deal for Body Team 12, a haunting and forceful short documentary about a Liberian Red Cross worker removing corpses from Ebola-affected villages. Still, as of January 2015, Ryot consisted of only eight people, most of whom slept on the floor at the company’s office near Venice, California.3

Then came the commercial VR surge. In January 2015, at the Davos World Economic Forum, Vrse showed a film called Clouds Over Sidra, about life in a UN refugee camp in Jordan. Viewers took their headsets off in tears. The following month, Chris Milk, the founder of Vrse, gave a popular TED talk in which he stated, “Through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected. And ultimately we become more human.” The UN showed the film at fund-raising events, claiming that it helped raise $3.8 billion from donors, and launched a virtual-reality division. As VR fever spread among nonprofits—everyone from World Vision to Greenpeace has since commissioned VR films—Ryot took notice.

On April 25, 2015, Darg was in New York when news broke that an earthquake had devastated Nepal. He borrowed a VR camera from a friend and headed to the airport. In Kathmandu he made a short VR film called The Nepal Quake Project. Mooser recruited Susan Sarandon, a donor to Artists for Peace and Justice, to narrate. The result is clunky, with blurry parallaxes—the problematic lines where two cameras’ fields of vision meet—and a blank spot in the VR sphere where one of the GoPros lost its juice. But some moments are transporting, as when the camera is placed in the cavern of a ruined building outside Kathmandu. In May, Mooser and Darg showed The Nepal Quake Project at Mountainfilm in Telluride, Colorado. Viewers there too left their headsets in tears. The Nepal Quake Project has since been viewed more than 100,000 times on platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Gear VR, and in Ryot’s app, and was shown at several galas. It helped raise $150,000 for quake relief.

Following this success, Mooser and Ryot’s chief marketing officer, an enterprising 28-year-old named Molly Swenson, reached out to NGOs and corporations about making VR content. Mooser enlisted the help of a number of his celebrity friends. The Sierra Club used the company to make a climate-change film narrated by Jared Leto. Pencils of Promise, an educational nonprofit, asked Ryot to make a film set at a school in Ghana and aired it at its annual gala, which raised $1.9 million. Walgreens and PepsiCo soon hired Ryot to make VR films.

Ryot dispatched VR shooters in Jordan, South Africa, France, Syria, and Greece. Mooser and Swenson sought $2 million in seed money, more than tripling the Ryot staff in nine months. “If VR doesn’t take off, we’ll go down in a blaze of blood and guts,” he tells me. In the meantime, he says, “we think we can help make the world a better place.” This might sound rather grandiose, but Mooser often makes such statements. He has an entrepreneur’s optimism and the sort of earnest credulity often found among aid workers. What he doesn’t have is a journalist’s skepticism.

As a more traditional journalist with stodgy notions about the value of an independent press, I was eager to see the empathy machine in action. Ryot’s particular brand of immersive storytelling seems complicated. Handled well, it could promote connection and compassion; handled poorly, it seems like it could foster a new brand of disaster tourism, enabling the privileged to traipse in and out of videogamelike crisis zones.

Which is why Darg invited me to join him in Lesbos in December. When I first landed on the island, he picked me up in a rental with a trunk full of orange juice, water, and crackers paid for by Operation Blessing, which was founded by televangelist Pat Robertson and has an annual budget in excess of $245 million. The trunk also contained a DSLR camera, a drone, and two VR cameras—the Theta and a custom 3-D-printed rig with seven embedded GoPros. We drove a couple of miles down the road, pulled over at a small cliff, and looked out at an ocean full of desperate vessels.


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