Africa: South Africa's Makhulu Media Shoots Pioneering VR Film to Get Health Clinic Workers and Young People Wanting an HIV Test to 'Step Into Each Other's Shoes'

London — Virtual Reality (VR) is still a bit of a technology in search of a role. But South Africa film production company Makhulu Media have used it to craft a very specific solution to a problem. Russell Southwood talks to Rowan Pybus, Makhulu Media about how it approached both filming and distribution.

360HIV is a campaign that uses VR to address the problems people have when they go to a clinic. Prior to filming, Makhulu Media organized workshops to listen to what young people said about their experiences. According to Rowan Pybus:"We sat in many countries listening to young people talk about HIV. One issue kept coming back. They were not getting the information they needed because they were being stigmatized by health care workers. It's not a case of people making it to the clinic and the battle's over."

"We wanted to see if immersive virtual reality films could encourage people to take an HIV test and improve relationships between nurses and young people by helping them to step into each other's shoes," said Pybus.

The VR film designed to address these problems was released by UNAIDS in November last year with support from Google, the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation and the Children's Radio Foundation.

Filmed entirely in the township of Nyanga, near Cape Town, the film uses a young women called Lele (who is living with AIDS) to go through the process of going to the clinic for testing and treatment:"You can feel the sense of nervousness. She had her first blood test in adolescence and it was quite emotional for her (to shoot the film). It's quite visceral to watch."

The idea is to get across that you can live a long life if you get treatment. The film goes through a number of scenarios, including when another nurse is present and the person coming to the clinic needs privacy:"Often the nursing staff are judging them brutally, saying things like 'I know your mother. Why are you having sex at 15?'"

"HIV is preventable and treatable but too few young people know their status," said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé. "We hope that this highly engaging tool will help to dispel fears and show the simple steps that people can take to find out their HIV status."

The idea is to put the films made into a variety of locations including clinics, youth centres and nurses' training colleges. Data will be gathered and used as part of a long-term study that is the next stage of the project. The Gates Foundation and South Africa's Department of Health are looking at funding this longer-term study.

The immediate objection to this kind of approach is how do you reach out to lots of people using a relatively costly VR headset. Google has provided the VR headsets and the makers hope the experience overcomes some of the inherent challenges.

"VR is both a problem and a solution. We wanted to give people a private, anonymous moment. We have an activation strategy that takes multiple headsets and puts the kit into action. We don't know if it will work but the early data indicates that it will make a difference." Reactions have been positive with people saying things like:"Wow, it's like I was there."

Much depends on the success of the activation strategy, as the cost of getting to people comes down significantly the more people watch. With say 10 nurses a day viewing it, Makhulu Films has calculated that it costs US$5.60 per nurse but with 30 a day viewing it comes down to US$1.87. Obviously the novelty of VR gives it a fair wind in the short to medium term.

Making the film was challenging, both in terms of the presenting the storylines and of the equipment:"We wanted to simulate the feeling of the visceral challenges." The equipment to shoot the film did not exist in South Africa so they had to build it, including recording equipment to get ambisonic sound that 360 x 360 degrees:"You can use sound to make the viewer turn and pay attention. It can make you feel endangered. In VR, you have to make choices about where the person will move and look."

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