It’s official. Virtual reality is here and it’s practically a household name. We may not have the true hoverboards we were promised, but we have VR. Living in San Francisco, it’s almost impossible to walk down the street and not hear about the latest Oculus products, the newest VR headsets or the craziest VR experience apps — hell, even Google designed a phone with VR as practically the sole focus.
However, beyond the games and the insane virtual worlds you get to escape to during a VR experience, the true soul of virtual reality, for me, is the immersive storytelling aspect of it through 360-film. It is a unique, brilliant and beautiful (when executed correctly) piece of technology and art form that connects people to other human beings, places and things in a way so empathic, it creates an emotional and immersive storytelling experience that allows people to understand what it’s like to live in somebody else’s shoes. And in this day and age, with all the madness and violence in the world, I believe empathy is the first step in solving these problems.
Enter The SOAP Collective — they’re a creative studio/agency focused on creating 360 film virtual reality experiences in San Francisco. The SOAP Collective is a trio made up of Logan Dwight, Ian Hirschfeld and Jarreau Bowen. The first time I fell in love with VR was at an UploadVR event. I remember being approached by Jarreau to try a music video VR experience (Cameron Grey’s “Never Bout Us”), and of course, I tried it. Sounded interesting enough.
However, from the moment I put on the headset to when I took it off, it completely changed the way I thought of virtual technology in itself, and more importantly, the extent of technological empathic experiences that can now be crafted through this form of art. Mind you, I was going through a pretty horrible break-up at the time and the music video was centered around a break-up, but that emotional experience was one I never thought could be achieved through the lens of a bulky headset.
From then on, I downloaded all of their apps on my phone and made all of my friends watch their VR experience apps via my shitty Coachella cardboard headset. Every single time, I got the same reaction — those that overcame me the first time I watched SOAP’s Cameron Grey VR video.
Eventually, curiosity got the best of me, so I decided to reach out to Jarreau and asked to interview them. Before I knew it, I was at my favorite coffee shop/art gallery with three of the most talented immersive storytellers in my book. Here’s the story of, or you could say a brief introduction to, The SOAP Collective.
Me: So, give me the history of The SOAP Collective. I want to know everything. How did VR become the main focus, and how difficult was it to get into that sphere?
Logan: The three of us come from a cross background of being enthusiastic about storytelling and media. Ian and I have actually known each other since high school and we actually got our start by making stop motion films. We were also doing a lot web design. So, post-university, when we moved out to San Francisco — I was working in games, Ian was working in tech and eventually we left our jobs to form SOAP as a creative studio. It was right around the time of the Oculus Kickstarter campaign and we knew we wanted to get into doing immersive storytelling in VR.
We also knew that, at that point, the technology hadn’t really grown yet. Everything was still super early. We first tried to debut ourselves as a web and app creative shop, focused around emotional experiences and storytelling. Our first product was Role, which was essentially like a role-playing game in the form of an iOS app. We were hoping that would set the precedent. We built apps and stuff, but we’re not just a work-for-hire shop. We specifically focused on creating emotional connections in storytelling experiences. Then a year later, we met Jarreau, and that’s when we started to strongly commit to VR. It was kind of the trajectory for us — so now it has become our primary focus.
Me: What is it about digital storytelling that’s such a draw for you guys?
Ian: We grew up in the 90s — so kind of seeing the birth of mainstream internet from Internet 1.0 to 2.0 and so forth, I was just constantly surrounded by media as a kid. Storytelling was also really big in my family. A lot of my family members worked in the film and TV industry to some degree. We got a computer really early on when I was young and my dad would let me play some games, but he would mostly get the ones that he thought was interesting and let me try and figure them out.
I was always experiencing all this different type of media and trying to figure out how they work — from playing games, reading comics to watching movies. Then I met Logan in high school and we started doing media creation together. We were creating films, like he mentioned, and submitting them to film festivals and winning them, which we were not expecting.
Logan: We actually submitted a film to a film festival at a different high school, and at the time, we didn’t know that the participants were only supposed to be from that high school and we ended up winning the whole thing.
Ian: I felt kind of bad about it at the time.
Logan: Yeah, but it was good and they enjoyed it. That’s when I realized, “Oh, we are creating media! We are creating stories that people are actually finding interesting — that they’re validating and enjoying.” Whether it was comedy or action shorts, people were enjoying it, and that’s when it clicked that “Hm, okay maybe this really is something.” So we just kept doing it, went to school for it, worked a couple of years and are now doing it full time.
Jarreau: So everything we do starts with a narrative — because we are storytellers. We’re so transfixed on this idea of sharing either an experience or a thought with other people. It always starts there, so they can talk about Role and how that came about — but ideally, it’s that we all had experiences where we really fell in love with a game or something digital that was also social.
So the question was, how do you build that, in the type of technology that people are using now? Right now, everyone’s on their cellphones, and because of how widespread the smart phone is, we’ve gotten to the point where you’re starting to cut yourself off from people. So things really aren’t as social as they once had been.
You don’t play games the same way you use to play games. Board game nights are like the hipster thing to do now, because it’s fun! And that’s the design challenge — how do you build a table-top experience but maintain the integrity of the cellphone experience? How do you make that whole thing social? So, you have “Role.” The same goes for everything else that we have built. There’s always something running there, and that, I guess stems from the design challenge. The first video you saw — Cameron Grey came to us and asked, I have a song and I have a story; and, we said, how can we take that song and story and make someone feel like they’re a part of it.
Me: Okay, so my absolute favorite VR app you’ve created is “Love Letters.” Let’s talk about Love Letters.
Jarreau: We will probably talk a lot about “Love Letters,” because there’s a lot there. There is a piece of it that’s kind of our passion point and carries our soft spot for San Francisco. I mean, you definitely have conversations with people who are constantly talking down about San Francisco.
Me: I don’t know, I feel like I’m always having conversations with people who talk non-stop about how much they love San Francisco.
Jarreau: Right. I think you’ve had some really cool experiences and have had the opportunity to meet some really great and interesting people; because, for us, it is nearly impossible to walk down the street without hearing someone complain about it. Eventually, we got to the point where we thought, for all, there are so many ways in which we take this city for granted.
Jarreau: It was an off-handed project but we wanted to create something to show all the reasons why we love this place and all the little hidden gems, and it just continued to grow. You’ve seen mine. It’s like there’s this soft spot in my heart for this certain place because of a person who introduced me to so many different areas, that it transcended the area.
For me, the conversation left San Francisco and crossed over to cover the whole Bay Area, and the project became about a person. And that’s what Love Letters turned into, how to walk with someone through some of their favorite spaces, most of them which are places people take for granted since it’s part of their everyday lives — whether it’s a beautiful view, a spin class or a bike shop.
Me: Moving on to “Profile” — it’s basically your portfolio but in app form. I was absolutely fascinated by that. I’m a Product Designer and I’ve been working on my professional portfolio and I feel like I can’t really express myself the way I want to. I really want my personality to shine through, but mine’s just an absolute mess.
Logan: Something that I think about a lot…since we’re talking about where our ideas come from, I’d like to think that each of us at SOAP are, in our own way, artists. We say “storytellers,” but “artists” is almost an even broader bucket.
Me: Well you guys are definitely artists.
Logan: Yeah, and we apply it in different ways. There’s a term we toss around internally which is this idea of “The New Creative.” Like Ian said, having grown up with the internet and all of these technologies and tools, I think that we are empowered to get our creativity out into the world and share it with more people. We are also empowered to be creative by using more tools in different ways than previous generations were able to.
To me, anyone who makes anything is an artist. If you’re a programmer, you’re technically still creating art because there is an art to writing code. If you are a writer, you are an artist. If you’re a photographer, you’re an artist. If you’re a designer, you’re an artist. So for us, every project in SOAP has essentially distilled down to the question of “What does every artist want?” They want to be able to express their feelings and their truths, and they want what they create to connect with other people. I have always been a big believer in that. I don’t create art for myself, I do it for everyone else. If I really only needed to make art for self worth, like having it for myself, I wouldn’t make it at all. So when we create things, they are always very specifically targeted.
We don’t necessarily have an agenda, we are not trying to get a message out there per say, but just like any artist, we want to connect with people who feel the way we feel, or who can empathize with us. So with “Profile,” we wanted to create a company portfolio. We already had a website, but we wanted to do something above and beyond that is kind of a portfolio, but also an art piece about who we are; because at SOAP, we don’t ever want to be the faceless entity. We don’t want it to feel like you only know the SOAP brand and not the people behind it.
Me: I love that.
Logan: It is really important to us. From day one, when we founded SOAP, we were writing down the different company pillars of what was going to be important for us in our culture. One of them was that everyone gets public credit for the work they do, because we want people to connect with the creators behind the project. And so, we thought of all the profiles that were going to create that.
With Profile, it’s a portfolio, you can scroll through it and you can see some of our projects, but you can also go through and get full bios of our team, and our idea is that as our projects expand, we’ll put more on the app. Also, as our team expands, we’ll put more people on the app as well.
Ian: The idea is for that is very much to be kind of like a living experience so that when someone downloads it, they literally get a full profile of who we are as a culture — not necessarily just what we are like or what kind of work you can hire us to do. And, I think that is really essential. If you look at everything we do, there is a trend in that.
Me: It’s really bizarre because not only are all of your projects so specific, but for each one, I definitely feel an emotional connection or empathic experience when I go through with the experience. I mean, I’m looking at this app right now (Note: I had “Profile” opened on my phone at this time), and I somehow feel like I know you. I suppose that’s the experience you’re trying to create.
Logan: I would call it a success then, if that’s the emotion you walked away with.
And on that note, I’ll end it there for now. My conversation with SOAP actually lasted far longer, but there’s so much more to what we discussed and what I learned from a simple two-hour conversation. I will actually be writing two more pieces on these brilliant artists/storytellers — one on their thoughts on VR in general and its future, and another on the user experience design of creating 360-film VR experiences. Just felt it was necessary to put this out there first — not only to introduce The SOAP Collective and tell their story, but also to emphasize the importance of empathic experiences and digital storytelling.