A virtual lab in a cardboard box

Last weekend I shared our brand new virtual reality (vr) lab tour with visitors at Cancer Quest in Wrexham. I was amazed how popular it was, especially with younger people. I know the importance of using the latest technology in research engagement and showing people that we are up to date and VR still seems very new, to me at least. But Tenovus Cancer Care are joining many other organisations working with specialist companies in South Wales and across the UK to apply these technologies across the arts and entertainment, as well as in medical science, engineering, and in education and training[1]

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Virtual reality is an innovative, exciting technology that integrates imagery and sound to create an immersive experience which people view through a headset. This immersive environment can be similar to the real world or it can be fantastical, creating an experience that is not possible in ordinary physical reality. A person using virtual reality equipment is able to “look around” the artificial world, move around in it, and interact with virtual features or items.  By 2016 there were at least 230 companies developing VR-related products. Facebook has 400 employees focused on VR development; Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Sony and Samsung all had dedicated AR and VR groups.

Orchard Media kindly offered to make us a virtual reality film. Orchard have been fantastic to work with, they are a local creative agency who have worked on diverse range of VR experiences including a film showing the experiences of growing up in care through the eyes of a child. They have also worked with The Wallich (a local homeless charity), to create a VR experience that gives a real sense of what it’s like to be a person living on the streets. After some discussion internally and with Orchard we decided a virtual tour of one of our labs would be the best choice. As I’m keen to do more work in our charity shops we decided to begin the tour in one of our shops enabling people to follow the money spent in the shop into the lab where we use it to fund vital cancer research.

The practicalities of creating a story board, writing the script, coordinating the lab and shop and roping in presenters took a bit of time but we finally filmed the lab tour earlier this month. This in itself was a fascinating process, stupidly I hadn’t realised that the camera would be set up in the lab but we would all have to leave the room so only those working in the lab would remain. We also had to close one of our shops for an hour while we filmed. I took on the role of presenter in the shop and felt the pressure to do a good job, it’s still nerve wracking and tongue tying even when you’re job is all about communicating clearly.

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In lab: the amazing scientists based in the Tenovus Building at Cardiff University, Lorna Evans from Orchard, my colleague  Tony Blight.. In the shop: Liz Unser a volunteer in our Roath Park Shop who kindly took part in the VR film

Orchard then offered me the chance to see some of the editing process. Again, absolutely fascinating, just as we were trying to give people the chance to see inside the labs, I got the chance to see an editing suite and watch Rhys edit our VR film. Once all the content was put together there was very little to edit, it looked great. It always amazes me that approx. 4 hours of filming had resulted in a 2 minute film, but it was perfect.

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I was desperate to have the film ready to show at our Cancer Quest event in Wrexham last weekend. This was my only event in North Wales this year so I didn’t want to miss the chance to show people the VR lab tour and get their feedback. Cancer Quest was a 2 day event, for the second year Tenovus Cancer Care have joined forces with Wales Cancer Research Centre and Cancer Research Wales to work with Techniquest Glyndwr to showcase cancer research in North Wales and the North West. This year was slightly different as Techniquest have secured an empty shop space in the town centre. It’s a huge space which if I’m honest we struggled to fill even with giant inflatable bowel, and several activity stations where people could take a ‘cellfie’, take part in a treasure hunt and make a cell from craft materials, and much more. It was a brilliant weekend and a great chance to catch up with some of our PhD students based in North Wales. Emma Campbell’s research is focussing on lay referral in the early diagnosis of cancer and Nafess Din is looking into prostate cancer and specifically androgen deprivation, which means stopping the male hormones, is something most men have at some point as a treatment. Nafees brought his whole family along for the weekend which was brilliant.

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Nafees and Emma doing cellfies at Cancer Quest

I tried to be creative when thinking about how to incorporate the VR lab tour into our stall at events. I’ve been trying to make our research engagement more memorable and think about how we attract as many people as possible to come and find out what we do. So I set out to create a pop-up shop for people to sit inside and watch the VR tour. After a bit of research I decided to adapt a children’s playhouse made of cardboard. I wanted this to be something quirky and to play on the idea that this was just a cardboard box but if people stepped inside they could put on the headset (a Pico Goblin kindly given to us on loan from Orchard Media) and be transported into one of our shops and then into the lab at the Tenovus Institute in Cardiff. It could still be tweaked and improved but I am so pleased with this new engagement prop and resource.

Lots of people of all ages were curious as to what it was, and loads adults and children sat inside and watched the VR lab tour over the weekend and the feedback was excellent. Although children and young teenagers are not my target audience for the VR lab tour, I had a good chance to chat to the adults with them about our work while the younger ones watched the film. It’ll be great to see what our shop staff, volunteers and customers think of it when I take it into our charity shops across Wales and England.

I can’t wait to show my colleagues in the office this week and then taking the VR lab tour to Swansea Science Festival next weekend.

 

 

 

[1] In 2017 Creative Cardiff and BAFTA Cymru brought together 80 practitioners, business leaders and academics from across South Wales to explore the rapidly developing use of virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) in the creative sectors.

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