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Empathy Building with Virtual Reality

MediaTech Ventures is lucky to have a visionary like Ricky Holm on our teacher roster. Based in Austin, Texas, Holm is the founder of Chocolate Milk and Donuts (CM&D), a virtual reality production studio. CM&D is committed to helping stories be told with virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and 360 video. Their latest project was a collaboration with the Western State Hospital (WSH) in Washington State, one of the largest state-run mental health hospitals. Together, they developed a 5-part mini-series training using Virtual Reality (VR) powered by 360-video to educate newly hired hospital staff over 2 weeks. This experiential onboarding practice was intended to increase empathy and understanding of a patient’s reality living with mental illness. This project was built through extensive research and guided by a Stanford study proving VR has the power to drive more empathy than traditional media.

Meet the teacher and visionary, Ricky Holm.

He’s a storyteller, formally trained in film and business, and philanthropist. “I wanted to do things my own way”, he admits. Introduced to VR through a friend, Ricky found the medium of storytelling he was seeking yet couldn’t find through traditional film mediums. He connected with VR instantly.

“[VR] is the innovation of industry, it’s immersive.”

– Ricky Holm

You might be thinking that Chocolate Milk and Donuts is quite a distinctive name for a full-service creative agency. Cause, it is! Founded in 2016, Ricky came up with the name while sitting in Redondo Beach. That deep-fried sweet cake reminded him of the love and labor that comes with good times and hard work. “I grew up outside of Seattle on a small farm. Like clockwork, all my friends would come over to my house to hang out. They would stay the night and we had freedom. My dad, every morning would have donuts and milk waiting for us. BUT, then came the farm chores.”

“We thought at first the name wasn’t series enough. It was childish and silly and that we wouldn’t be taken seriously, but we realized it was creative and fun. And it works as the brand and its eye-catching.” So far it’s been working for Ricky and his team. Since founding the company, CM&D has had the opportunity to work with: VW, Hasbro, United Nations, Qatar Airlines, Texas Department of Transportation, National Museum of the Pacific War, TTec, Make-A-Wish Foundation, FIA, Schlotzsky’s Deli, Lagunitas Brewing, Juncos Racing, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, PenPal Schools and more to surely come.

“You can get delicious rewards, as long as you put the work in.”

– Ricky Holm
Source: CM&D

Embracing a New Form of Storytelling: Virtual Reality

It’s an uncommon collaboration, but one that’s the first of its kind. CM&D developed the story of Lena, a young woman living with schizophrenia. The 5-part series provides a snapshot of the journey a person with schizophrenia undergoes. The user experiences fear, confusion, and frustration. They hear the voices Lena hears. Reversely, they experience interactions between health care workers through Lena’s shoes. The script was thoughtfully created with the consultation of various health care professionals and Ricky’s creative team. The 360 video production included a cast of 60 members and a dozen filming locations spread across two states. Ricky’s team was also responsible for advising the medical staff with the best user experience practices and in-person training.

“Telling a story about the struggles of mental illness can work in any medium, but telling it in VR allows us to do something that no other format can do. It lets the viewer experience the symptoms and confusion that, a woman with severe schizophrenia, deals with. This gives hospital employees the opportunity to grow as individuals and better understand and help patients suffering return home to their loved ones.”

– Wes Evans; Creative Director, CM&D

Empathy is the experience of connection and understanding.

Empathy is the capability to understand and imagine another person’s feelings and experience. It requires one to step into the reality of another, to be in their shoes. Virtual reality conceptually puts you into the shoes of another individual. It’s a phenomenon where one steps into the perspective, or the mind, of another, to understand their experience. That’s already hard on its own for us to do, to truly grasp the particular experience of another human.

VR has been described as an “empathy machine” for years. Empathy can enhance interpersonal relationships with simple understanding. On the other hand, there is such a thing as empathy burnout. It’s a real-world problem, worth an article in itself. For workers in high-stress and sometimes dangerous environments (such as a mental health institute), empathy is necessary for the continued care and connection between caregivers and patients. Incoming staff at WSH got to experience being in the shoes of Lena and could understand her daily struggles.

VR helps the community

The patient journey is remarkably understood within staff members.

“I’ve heard people say they hear voices, but I’ve never seen something make it so real. I think this will help me when I’m talking to (patients) and they’re not responding.”

– Terry S., Registered Nurse, Western State Hospital

This training program is the first known application of VR storytelling to prepare mental health care professionals. Since its implementation and use for the past couple of months, there are reports of improved conditions within the hospital.

Source: CM&D

“It’s been phenomenal. It’s changed peoples’ demeanor and the way they handle things. They handle us (patients) with more care.”

Anonymous Patient, Western State Hospital

Ricky’s project is an example of how digital innovation can help our communities and the world.

The digital move forward

Globally, we digitally adapted and advanced in 2020. There’s more to come in our digital evolution. Ricky Holm is one of the industry experts leading that progress.

“What we are really excited about is that the pandemic forced people to adopt digital for the first time in decades, digital wasn’t a choice, it was a necessity. It also taught people how to live differently. Acceleration of the digital transition. Excited to see how it shifts the environment of digital”

– Ricky Holm

Continue keeping up with the cutting-edge work Ricky is creating by staying connected in our community. Read more about our incubator where pioneering mentors guide rising entrepreneurs.

Anahit Poturyan

Anahit Poturyan is a writer, art educator, and digital marketer based in LA with a strong focus on technology, research, history, and culture.She received her B.A. in English Literature and an Art History minor from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and an M.A. in Aesthetics and Politics from the California Institute of Art (CalArts).She has worked at the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, Italy; the 58th Venice Biennale, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Hammer Museum, Artbook @Hauser & Wirth, and Otis College of Art and Design. She has lectured at numerous conferences across the world, such as the Nordic Summer University in Faro, Sweden, and the Western University of Australia, Perth, Australia. Her writings have appeared in the LA Review of Books, MediaTech Ventures, Whitehot Magazine, among others.

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