I got a chance to catch up with Rosie Poebright from Splash n Ripple recently – we worked together last year whilst she was a REACT Almuni scheme, and now has evolved her definitive approach to extraordinary experiences, and approach she calls Empath.
Gill: So Rosie, what is Empath?
Rosie: Empath is an audio augmented reality, where you get the chance to become somebody else for half an hour, and walk around in their life. We do this on a mobile app, that knows where you are in the real world and you hear a story that responds to the actions that you take in the real word. Like where you decide to go, who you decide to call, whether you are running or walking, or just staying in one place. Its aware of your physical actions in the real world. So we create a story where – for half an hour – you become a character and then live their life for them, and see what it’s like to be that person.
What does that give people who are participating in it, that conventional immersive theatre doesn’t?
It’s a very personal experience, because it’s a headphone experience. It’s very intimate experience that happens within your head and body. So this is like a form of embodied storytelling. We enable each audience member to sink into it – with a deeper part of themselves, and physically live the actions of moving around in the story: you live out what it’s like in the ‘thought stream’ of this character fed in through the headphones and that’s responsive to your actions in the real world. SO it is very interactive. The thing about ‘normal’ immersive theatre is that it’s often a shared experience, not always, but often a shared group thing, which can kind of keep you out of being immersed, because you are negotiating what everyone else is doing and thinking, and feedling, We are looking at doing a multiplayer version, but at the moment this is just about you becoming this other character, so there is more space for you to go deeper.
I’ve heard you talk bout the challenges for people with the ‘notification world’ of constant nagging of digital things and processes… What kind of role does Empath play in that world ?
Ironically it’s delivered on a mobile device! One of these devices that creates huge amounts of distraction to normal people on their normal lives through texting, notifications, emails… but here it does something valuable and you are encouraged to take that space in your day and go and do this thing. You step out of your normal everyday world and do enter this kind of extraordinary space. Our audience sits somewhere between VR and the whole ‘podcast’ thing, it’s something in the middle of that, cause it’s interactive, but it’s audio, not visual.
What I like about it it’s that you are using the massive power of individual people’s imagination, alongside the storytelling that you do. You draw on so much imagery, experiences, and thought processes that people have…
In doing this, it means that you give audience a chance – through the kind of embodied nature of the experience – to descend into deeper levels of them self. We are working on different ways to get people to step into this mild trance state, where they are receptive to become another kind of person. In that kind of reflective, almost meditative space, there is also a chance to reflect on your self as well. You will find that you think differently about the world, about the character, about your belief around this story that you have and challenged them. And then it triggers your own sense, ‘so, how do I feel about this?’
We encourage people to tap into that part of themselves – when they have been in a similar situation, what they done that in the past, and feel empowered. Empath works on many different levels.
Right, so, seeing something through someone else’s eyes, has a strong effect on your own perceptions…
Yes. It can do!
So what’s coming up with Empath? What can we expect to see around the next year or so ?
Right now we’re doing two things: We’re developing the platform so that we can demonstrate the huge storytelling potential of Empath as a platform. We using empathy as a mechanic to help people to examine their beliefs about different subjects.
We are still in a prototype version of the platform, and this is both software and how these experiences are structured. So we have a prototype which is called “Through an other’s eyes”, which is the story of a woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, and she doesn’t want to be pregnant, but she doesn’t want to get an abortion, so she is in a crisis situation… and “What does that feels like ?”… and it’s not about what should she do, it’s more about how do people move pass this kind of crisis double bind moments in their life.
So that’s the prototype one, but we will be developing the next iteration in the next couple of months, where we will be looking at gender, as story around gender. There’s a lot of talk about gender right now. We’re exploring what it’s like to be in a male body, in a female body, what it’s like to be in the wrong body…We’ll be looking at those sort of stories with experts and people who know deeply about those situations.
What help do you need?
Basically, within the next year, we want to get some kind of investment, some kind of funding or sizable loan. Ideally we get it to a state we can develop it into the kind of platform that can be played anywhere. In a couple of years, we’ll have hundreds of thousands of people downloading these things. That would be really cool. People would be waiting for the next one to come out!
What would you hope that the next couple of years brings then ?
I think in a couple of years, we’d love Empath to be a thing that is imitated, and that people would do it everywhere. It’s a more popular form of game or experience that people do. Ideally we’d have lots of downloads, hundreds of thousands of them, and other people would be trying to make them. Empath is a form that is recognized as something that’s really powerful and valuable.
If you look at news in the media now, it’s largely negative. It’s hugely disempowering. You hear far too many people saying: “What can I do ? I can’t do anything…!“ Empath is not like that – its the kind of media that taps into the place where we feel empowered. Where we can do something. That’s what it aims to do.
By experiencing a story, then developing empathy, we feel empowered to do something. Being given the choice to do something afterwards demonstrates to the players that they can change something. It helps people to feel that they have more agency, more power in their lives than they first thought.That is so important for me – if we don’t want to collapse into a world of terrorism and fear and climate changed… hope is the only answer to that! Empath is a hope generating experience!