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Grieving Is Hard, Long Work. Could Technology Help?

The phone booth where people go to grieve for loved ones lost in the 2011 tsunami is the centerpiece of a new VR experience.

In 2011, a devastating tsunami hit Japan, killing 18,000 people. Many people impacted by the disaster found an unusual way to grieve–an empty telephone booth that a resident placed in his garden in the coastal town of Otsuchi. The booth has a disconnected rotary phone inside. After the tsunami, hundreds have come to “call” their lost loved ones on what’s known as the “wind phone,” sending their love to the dead on the sea breeze.

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[Image: Ntropic]
Now three stories of people who have visited the phone booth to speak with their dead loved ones are part of a new virtual reality experience. Created by the creative studios Ntropic and Yes Please Thank You in partnership with Oculus, the experience Phone of the Wind is a mix between live action footage, animation, and an interactive finale. The project is underwritten by Oculus as content to add to its VR platform, making it an experience that anyone with an Oculus can purchase and watch. With its heart-wrenching subject and mix of storytelling techniques, Phone of the Wind demonstrates VR’s capacity to move us–and perhaps help us come to terms with our own grief.

[Image: Ntropic]
For Nate Robinson, the founder of Ntropic, the project came at a difficult time. A close friend’s husband had passed away suddenly, and Robinson was feeling the wrench of loss. “It was one of the first times in my life where someone was taken so suddenly without rationale,” he says. “When something happens so suddenly like the tsunami in Japan, it just kicks you in the gut.”

To create the VR film, the team working on the project went to Japan to visit the real phone booth. They used a drone to do an aerial opening shot, where the viewer drops down from on high and ends up inside the phone booth. Then, for each story, there’s a short animation telling the story of the relationship between the living and a lost loved one. One story is about a grandmother who brings her two grandchildren to talk to their lost grandfather–this part is live action. But as soon as she picks up the phone, the world is taken over by an illustrated dream, as she relives the memories of their time together. “We want when people watch this to not get depressed, but to celebrate the connections and the memories,” Robinson says.

[Image: Ntropic]
The final piece is an interactive phone booth, where viewers have a chance to call their own lost loved ones on a virtual rotary phone or write down a note for them. Anyone who visits the virtual booth can see the notes that others have written as well, turning the project into a communal memorial. “We recreated it exactly how it is,” says Andrew Cohen, a CG artist at Ntropic.” It’s not a tourist attraction. It’s a real place where people use this tool for real reasons. To embellish it too much would have felt wrong.”

Robinson hopes viewers will be as moved as he is by the story and the experience of the phone booth (which is also beautifully documented in a This American Life episode that will leave you in a puddle of tears). The immersive elements–building a real model of a phone booth, complete with a rotary phone, for people to stand inside as they go through the experience–are designed to simply amplify the experience. That way, when it comes time to talk to someone you’ve lost, there’s something real to hold on to.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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