This story comes to us from Lara Jeremko, a Strategic Adviser for Techstars. Lara traveled to Israel on the REALITY Eden to Zion journey last spring. Here she shares her views on the potential of virtual reality technology to be a catalyst for social change and how she is bringing that potential to life in LA.

The world we live in today is uncertain and complex. Violence, political division, geopolitical tensions and an ever-increasing socioeconomic divide are just a few of the challenges facing humanity today.

These challenges do not exist in isolation. They cross lines of communities, industries, cultures, languages and nations. Yet when we attempt to tackle these issues, too often we do so from our own echo chambers of tech, arts and entertainment, politics or even non-profits.

Now more than ever we need cross-disciplinary collaborations to create innovative solutions to the most complex challenges of our day.

One example of a cross-disciplinary collaboration that has captured my imagination is virtual reality (“VR”) as an empathy engine. I’ve been studying VR from an investment perspective for a couple of years now but have viewed applications in gaming and entertainment as falling short of the technology’s true potential. I’m all for fun and enjoyable experiences, but I also think there are critically important problems to address like preparing for an automated society, the future of education, and the integrity of news media.

Then I learned about immersive journalism and it blew my mind. I first heard about VR empathy storytelling at a tech conference at Paramount Pictures in 2015. One prominent filmmaker described VR’s ability to create first-person news experiences to increase global awareness and engage empathy. That’s when I realized VR wasn’t all about distraction and escapism; VR has the potential to shift paradigms, transform culture and catalyze real change in the world.

Fast forward to earlier this year, when I moved from Austin to Los Angeles to create a new startup investment strategy for VR and other frontier technologies. My vision is to unlock sustainable well-being for humanity through enabling technologies and content. I chose LA because I believe there is no better place on earth for cross-disciplinary collisions to solve humanity’s greatest challenges in bold new ways.

When I arrived in LA, I was eager to build community. One way I plugged into the LA social scene was through my REALITY network. REALITY is an initiative of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation that supports global changemakers on a mission to repair the world. I attended REALITY Eden to Zion last April with a group of 80+ amazing humans from the Summit Series community. Immersion in the political, cultural and historical complexities of Israel provided me with profound global perspective and context. My REALITY experience was nothing short of life-changing; I left Israel on fire to make world-changing contributions through my life and work.

I was eager to explore my passion for VR immersive storytelling with other visionaries and content creators. I approached the Schusterman Foundation to co-host a Shabbat dinner on the topic and was amazed to heatr they were already planning a “Beyond REALITY” Israel trip for VR/AR influencers and content creators later this year. I teamed up with REALITY alumni Beth Doane and Dani Van de Sande to gather 45 LA-based filmmakers, entrepreneurs, investors, artists and activists for dinner and conversation. We were honored to feature lightning talks from four filmmakers sharing their revolutionary work in immersive storytelling and VR empathy experiences:

Rose Troche is a renowned director and creator of activist first-person VR experiences including date rape and police brutality. Rose spoke to us about re-thinking our responsibility as content creators and stepping outside conventional storytelling techniques. Rose quoted in the LA Times: “I do pieces that take you to places that you don’t want to go, and I don’t want to take you to those places on a whim or in a cavalier way.”

Nonny de la Pena, founder of the Emblematic Group and creator of dozens of immersive journalism experiences including solitary confinement, domestic abuse and the fatal shooting of Treyvon Martin. Nonny, widely recognized as the Godmother of VR, spoke to us about leaving an established career at Newsweek to pioneer an entirely new medium for journalism.

Armando Kirwin is a VR technologist with prior experience at Google VR, Facebook, Milk(VR) and Here Be Dragons. Armando has completed 22+ VR projects to date—earning four Emmy nominations, the Grand Prix at Cannes, and numerous debuts at Tribeca, SXSW and Sundance. Armando spoke to us about the evolution of immersive storytelling technology and opportunities for content creators to combine story, game and film in new experiences.

Taryn Southern is an internet personality, content creator and VR enthusiast whose videos have received more than 750 million views online. She is currently producing a documentary on the future of augmented intelligence, directed by Morgan Spurlock. Taryn spoke to us about the future of brain-computer interfaces and the power of VR digital therapeutics to treat PTSD, depression and other mental health conditions.

Our guest speakers and ensuing conversations were nothing short of extraordinary. Participants described the event as inspiring, expansive and perspective-shifting. For me personally, it was exciting to see new creative connections and friendships made among a very talented, diverse and passionate community of visionaries. I am also exploring a futurist/activist film project of my own with one of the filmmakers at the dinner, so stay tuned! The dinner is only the beginning—a mere glimpse of how cross-disciplinary communities can shape the future in LA and beyond. 

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.