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Experiencing autism in VR via Happy Finish

While people with autism might “appear” to be like the rest of us, the way they experience the world is decidedly different. Imagine sensory overload times 10. In an effort to help the public understand autism, the UK’s National Autistic Society and agency Don’t Panic have launched a campaign called “Too Much Information” (#autismTMI) that is set to challenge myths, misconceptions and stereotypes relating to this neurobiological disorder.

In order to help tell that story, the NAS called on London’s Happy Finish to help create a 360-degree VR film that puts viewers into the shoes of a child with autism during a visit to the store. A 2D film had previously been developed based on the experience of a 10-year-old boy autistic boy named Alexander. Happy Finish provided visual effects for that version, which, since March of last year, has over 54 million views and over 850K shares. The new 360-degree VR experience takes the viewer into Alexander’s world in a more immersive way.

After interviewing several autistic adults as part of the research, Happy Finish worked on this idea that aims to trigger viewer’s empathy and understanding. Working with Don’t Panic and The National Autistic Society, they share Alexander’s experience in an immersive and moving way.

The piece was shot by DP Michael Hornbogen using a six-camera GoPro array in 3D printed housing. For stitching, Happy Finish called on Autopano by Kolor, The Foundry’s Nuke and Adobe After Effects. Editing was in Adobe Premiere. Color grading was via Blackmagic’s Resolve.

“It was a long process of compositing using various tools,” explains Jamie Mossahebi, director of the VR shooting at Happy Finish. “We created 18 versions and amended and tweaked based on initial feedback from autistic adults.”

He says that most of the studio’s VR experiences aim to create something comfortable and pleasant, but this one needed to be uncomfortable while remaining engaging. “The main challenge was to be as realistic as possible, for that, we focused a lot on the sound design as well as a testing a wide variety of visual effects, selecting the key ones that contributed to making it as immersive and as close to a sensory overload as possible,” explains Mossahebi, who directed the VR film.

“This is Don’t Panic’s first experience of creating a virtual reality campaign,” says Richard Beer, creative director of Don’t Panic. “The process of creating a virtual reality film has a whole different set of rules: it’s about creating a place for people to visit and a person for them to become, rather than simply telling a story. This interactivity of virtual reality gives it a unique sense of “presence” — it has the power to take us somewhere else in time and space, to help us feel, just for a while, what it’s like to be someone else – which is why it was the perfect tool to communicate exactly what a sensory overload feels like for someone with autism for the NAS.”

Sponsored by Tangle Teaser and Intu, the film will tour shopping centers around the UK and will also be available through Autism TMI Virtual Reality Experience view app.

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