Novo Uses VR To Increase Human Connection

Novo Uses VR To Increase Human Connection
March 8, 2019

Lindsay Branham is the founder of NOVO, a non-profit incubator for art and technology that recently produced a slew of virtual reality (VR) films meant to increase human connection. Her projects use film making and screening methods along various social divides with the goal of inspiring empathy in communities—and addressing social problems like stigma, bonded labor, and inter religious conflict. We first met Lindsay last year when she shared NOVO’s work on a panel at the 2018 Skoll World Forum. The word novo means new, which dovetails well with our exploration of “possibility” at this year’s Forum, where she’s returning as a delegate. Lindsay recently connected with us to discuss the impact of VR storytelling tools, her thoughts on a more peaceful future, and how the Skoll network is valuable for a non-profit like NOVO.


Annah MasonThe 2019 Skoll World Forum will explore how humanity can “accelerate possibility” through a future that is fair, inclusive, and sustainable. How does NOVO connect people? 


Lindsay Branham:  NOVO inspires human connection through circular storytelling projects that come from and return to the communities they are about. This includes participatory film and art making, where communities put forward themes and an agenda they want to explore, and we provide the support to make it happen through art-making expertise. We take this connection further by using these creative projects as the center pieces of strategic interventions in communities experiencing violence. Through the process of creation, engagement, viewing, and dialogue, people are able to safely connect along often difficult, tenuous, or sensitive topics. 


Stories provide the avenue to connect through aesthetic distance, to identify with characters, and ignite a process of transformation that may be too difficult, abrupt, or direct otherwise. To date, we’ve created three VR films: Emmy-nominated Behind The Fence (SXSW 2017), exposing the genocide of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar.

The Hidden (Tribeca Film Festival 2018), which was screened at Skoll World Forum last year, takes viewers on a raid in Southern India to free a family trapped in bonded labor; and our current project, Even in the Rain (Venice Film Festival 2018).

We’ve seen these films galvanize support for critical human rights efforts and raise awareness and engagement for the organizations behind them, including International Justice Mission and The Nexus Fund.


We also want to explore the capabilities VR technology might have within divided communities on the ground. And we are confident that anything is possible.


Annah: What is the human impact of VR as a storytelling tool for social and behavioral change?


Lindsay: We’ve seen [virtual] intergroup contact transform the way people see and treat each other, even between antagonistic groups. 


In 2018, NOVO completed a pilot study in the Central African Republic (CAR) exploring the efficacy of virtual immersive contact (VIC) through virtual reality technology to reduce prejudice and discrimination toward the Muslim minority. The intervention was guided by existing work on contact and prejudice and builds on literature to test whether VIC can improve communal relations in a conflict environment.


[The study found that] VIC produced a significant increase in empathic concern for the Muslim outgroup and intentions to donate to a Muslim family. This research provides the first evidence of its kind that VIC could be a new form of fostering positive intergroup contact and reducing discrimination, creating a new facet of intergroup contact theory.


The project was supported by Google, conducted through the University of Cambridge, and is currently being submitted to peer-reviewed journals.


AnnahYou spoke about your work with NOVO and International Justice Mission at the 2018 Skoll World Forum. What was that experience like?


Lindsay: Yes, it was an honor to share a panel with Gary Haugen, the Founder of IJM; Raja Ebenezer, a lawyer with IJM who works to end slavery; filmmaker Nicole Newnham; and Tashka Yawanawa, the Chief of the Yawanawa tribe [from Brazil]. We had a rich discussion ranging from ending slavery to the role of storytelling in igniting a moral imagination.


It was inspiring to share such critical efforts to end slavery with enduring artists who are telling stories that matter while de-centering a Western narrative.


Plus, Skoll was the first audience to see a sneak preview of our VR film The Hidden!


Annah: How did the experiences or connections from the 2018 Skoll World Forum serve or enhance your work afterward?


Lindsay: I met colleagues who have become a source of community and co-conspiracy in the work of world-renewal.


These are thoughtful, creative, persevering people who are working to improve the world in all corners; the energetic alchemy is contagious, and trickles forward year-long.


Annah: You’re returning in 2019 as a delegate, and we’re thrilled to have you back. As a nonprofit with limited resources, how do you prioritize which events to attend?


Lindsay: At NOVO, we believe deeply in the generation of knowledge, ideas, and solutions from within communities. We see our role as a facilitator, not the engine. I want to be around people who share that worldview. [I look for platforms that are] undeniably worth the investment, from the people you will meet to the level of depth and curation of the programming. I find Skoll sessions to be rich and nuanced, which is not often the case at conferences.


Annah: Who are you looking to connect with at this year’s Forum to advance storytelling?


Lindsay: I’d love to meet Krista Tippett because On Being has meant so much to me as a storyteller focused on the human experience. Her consciousness-altering work allows voices on a wide spectrum to co-exist peacefully. I’m also looking forward to connecting with colleagues from the Freedom Fund, and others working in philanthropy and storytelling, particularly around the ideas of liberty and the human right to flourish. How can we make a world where little girls like Ammu from The Hidden are able to live out their fullest destiny?

Image: Nathan Garcia


I want to generate and germinate new ideas and collaborations for people and planet. Human life, wildlife, and natural life are worth every effort to protect for generations to come.


Annah: Who inspires you to continue your social impact work?


Lindsay: I’m inspired by Sister Angelique Namaika. She lives in Dungu, Democratic Republic of Congo and has started a variety of social enterprises, including a cooperative bakery to support children affected by ongoing conflict.


Sister Angelique lives out the philosophy that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Her patient, enduring dedication to ending war and caring for each individual, day in and day out, no matter the personal cost, pushes me to imagine this kind of world for everyone.


Annah: What do you think is possible?


Lindsay: I believe that a world where peace and equality is available to everyone is not only possible, it’s coming. The community at Skoll is proof of impossibility transforming into the inevitable.

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