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Sandy Cioffi at TEDxSeattle
Seattle filmmaker Sandy Cioffi has a laugh over an experimental virtual-reality project that brought participants together in real life as well. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Virtual reality may have gotten its start with shoot-’em-up video games and porn, but now artists are making VR that puts the emphasis on reality as well as humanity.

And Seattle filmmaker Sandy Cioffi argues that the Pacific Northwest could well blaze the trail on the multimedia frontier.

“If anything is this powerful, you have to do something more with it than design it to make money,” said Cioffi, the founder and executive director of fearless360º, a new media and VR production company. “And Seattle is the place to do it.”

Why Seattle? During her TEDxSeattle talk on Saturday, Cioffi cited the region’s “embarrassment of riches” on the tech front, its cultural diversity and its natural beauty — as well as its growing pains.

“Whether we like it or not, we are a laboratory,” she said. “What kind of laboratory do we want to be? I say, let’s be the Silicon Rainforest, where we develop VR for human good.”

Using media as a force for good is a goal that Cioffi has been pursuing for years, not only with  fearless360º, but also with more traditional projects such as “Sweet Crude,” a 2009 film that looks at how the effects of stepped-up oil production provoked an outcry in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria.

If today’s VR tools had been as widely available back then, Cioffi said she might well have made the film as a virtual reality project. Going forward, she plans to use VR as a tool to immerse an audience in dramatic but totally reality-based environments — starting with Seattle.

“We’re going to do some community stories, and we’re going to do the body swap and hear those oral histories,” she said. “We’re going to ask ourselves, ‘What difference might it make to cities developing so quickly and so significantly as Seattle if we hear one another’s stories while we feel as though we’re walking in each other’s skin?’ ”

What’s that experience like? Cioffi listed a range of virtual-reality productions with the human touch. Watch for them at a theater, museum or VR headset near you:

  • Project Syria (2013): Immersive experience about Syria’s civil war. When the production was released on Steam a year ago, it sparked a strong negative response, tinged with racist tirades.
  • Munduruku (2017): Experience life in one of the Amazon’s best-known and most threatened indigenous communities.
  • Perspective (2015-2016): First-person perspectives that challenge the audience’s perception of social issues, ranging from campus sexual assault to street crime.
  • Treehugger Wawona (2016): This fantastical VR experience takes you into the world of a giant sequoia tree, using lidar, CT scans and other visualized biological data.
  • In the Eyes of the Animal (2015): See a forest landscape through the eyes of a mosquito, a dragonfly, a frog or an owl.
  • Birdly (2014): Want to fly like a bird? Strap in for a VR experience that’s enhanced with a full-body robotic rig and wind feedback to give you the feeling of flying. Nexodus VR promises to bring Birdly to Seattle next year.
  • Fabulous Wonder.Land (2015): This psychedelic virtual world serves as a headset accompaniment to “Wonder.Land,” a musical based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.”
  • Notes on Blindness (2016): A virtual-reality production based on how a blind person experiences the world? This award-winning tie-in to a documentary film pulls it off.
  • The Machine to Be Another (Ongoing): VR guides users through embodied narratives in which they experience what it’s like to be someone else.
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