Company: Exemplum Studios
Founder: Atthar Mirza
Development: Omar El Sheikh, Conner Anderson, and Collin Hansen
Outreach and Marketing: Claire Poumerol
Interviewers: Jack Freed and Michael Eaton Byrd (Entrepreneurship and Innovation Co-Chairs)
The global displaced population at the end of 2015 totaled 65.6 million, the highest number since the end of World War II. Yet despite the unprecedented scale of the refugee crisis, border policies and sentiments in destination countries towards migrants have come from a place of fear rather than empathy. For 2017 UVA Architecture School graduate, Atthar Mirza, tackling this problem of immigrant perception meant building an interactive experience that would allow people to understand the unique challenges these communities face. Sitting at the intersection of the humanities and technology, Exemplum Studios uses virtual reality experiences to generate understanding through experience, and shift the conversation on forced immigration from a place of fear to one of empathy.
What is Exemplum Studios?
Exemplum Studios is an innovative company that uses interactive storytelling in virtual reality (VR) to facilitate learning with the end goal of generating a social impact. Our current build is called Impossible Courage and is an experience that details the journeys of refugees traversing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe.
Could you walk me through the Impossible Courage experience?
Impossible Courage is a choose your own adventure VR experience that is based upon actual migration patterns in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee crisis. You are put into a variety of different scenarios where you must make major decisions like whether to leave your country of origin in North Africa or whether to trust the man who is guiding you across the Mediterranean to the refugee transit island of Lampedusa. All the while, your decisions are placed under the same stresses that migrants would face. On the migrant boat you will feel cramped and likely experience seasickness and every decision you make is under a time constraint of 15 to 30 seconds. One really cool thing we have observed with people going through the experience is that they will take their hands and try to comfort the children that are on the boat with them, which is totally representative of the feelings of empathy we hope to generate.
Source: The Guardian “I Was a Lampedusa Refugee” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/20/lampedusa-refugee-fleeing-libya-boats-italy
What is particularly exciting about VR technology? What is unique about Exemplum as an application?
People love to talk about VR as a dystopian technology but Impossible Courage has really changed our perspective. There are really great things that can be done with the technology, but it wouldn’t be possible without people taking the initiative to create the content. Also, VR is such a revolutionary technology and you have the potential to break through in a new market. In terms of what is unique about Exemplum in this space, we tried to play towards the strengths of existing VR technology. Coming from a tech-heavy side in terms of VR training companies is actually pretty unique. We had the development skills and creative mindset necessary to actualize this idea.
How did Exemplum studios get started?
Exemplum started out as an animation project that Atthar, our co-founder, was working on as part of an Architecture school class during the Fall 2016 semester. After realizing Atthar could export animation models to be compatible with VR technology, the project grew and won funding at the Entrepreneurship Cup. Atthar did not have experience with virtual reality technology, so he became involved with the VR club at UVA where he met Exemplum developers Collin, Conner and Omar. It was a great synthesis of our technological skills and Atthar’s creative talent, and today we have a fully functioning HTC hive prototype. Interestingly, we didn’t set out to create a company. Pursuing this project was something that we wanted to do regardless; forming a company just happened to be the best way to formalize this arrangement.
What is the problem your company addresses and the solution it proposes?
Exemplum aims to help transport people into an experience they would not otherwise be able to have. And obviously the end goal is to foster empathy, but our mission is mostly centered on generating mutual understanding and actually feeling what people experience. That was the idea behind our refugee project, Impossible Courage, and it is the motivation behind any simulation project in general. We met with numerous psychology professors who helped us tremendously in achieving our goal of fostering empathy.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?
One of the biggest challenges for us has been to decouple the novelty of the experience from the impact of the experience itself. If it is someone’s first VR experience they are just in awe and blown away that technology has progressed to where it is today. This might detract from the somber experience we are trying to represent. Trying to figure out how to balance these things is something we are struggling with and trying to figure out. The VR headset is what gets people interested to come try it. We need to acknowledge that the main draw is this technology and we need to very quickly transition from this space of awe to a space of empathy.
How has the company evolved and what is its future direction?
The way that we see the company going is looking out towards the market to identify areas where VR can be used as a way to learn through experience. There are areas within business where VR would provide a lot of value and be cheaper and reduce costs. You can do a lot of things in VR, but the exemplum angle is unique in that it is trying to evoke emotion. We hope to stay true to our mission of showing by example in whatever we do but we also recognize the applications may change. For example, we have shifted to partner with Global Emergency Group, a humanitarian aid consultancy, to provide them with training modules in VR.