Twenty-four GoPro cameras and Pope Francis: This might sound like the recipe for a B-flick about a swashbuckling pontiff, but it’s not. In 2016, that’s how a Las Vegas virtual reality production company captured Pope Francis’ appearance in Poland during World Youth Day, a festival organized by the Catholic Church about every three years. Commissioned by the American Bible Society, Greenfish Labs created a VR experience by using GoPro cameras—those little plastic-covered gadgets you might see mounted on top of a motorcyclist’s helmet—and a Nokia Ozo, a $45,000 recording device that captures 360-degree footage thanks to its spherical shape.
“Having the Catholic Church say ‘Virtual reality is key to spreading our word to the younger generation’ is amazing, and to film Pope Francis and [the 3 million people in attendance] was amazing,” says Joshua Ybarra, vice president of production for Greenfish Labs. “I almost get goose bumps now thinking about it.”
Virtual reality is sparking global interest, which means Ybarra is in demand in many places. Over the past year alone, he has also traveled to the Dominican Republic, Playa del Carmen, Guatemala, Malawi, New York and San Francisco to coordinate VR shoots for clients.
VR is a computer-generated immersive experience that strives to mimic reality. It is filmed in 360-degree 3-D and is typically viewed on a cellphone that attaches to a headset and reacts to movements. As the head turns, the scene extends to reveal more of the image, just as if you were experiencing it in person and in real time. Though best viewed on a device that blocks out peripheral vision, like the headset, VR can also be explored on a computer. “It lets people transport their viewers to anywhere in the world,” Ybarra says.
This is the second location for Greenfish Labs, which started in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and is looking to capitalize on the local market. Ybarra, a Las Vegas native, is instrumental in the company’s growth. Ben Duffey and Sovanna Mam, the founders of Greenfish, met Ybarra after hiring his wife as a makeup artist for a local shoot. She suggested they work with him to coordinate gear, as he had experience filming locally and was familiar with VR. After employing him for another project, they decided it was time to expand here and focus on Las Vegas events and clients, including the convention scene.
While many VR production companies rely on interactivity to create memorable content, Greenfish believes it must be more than that. “We strive to tell people a story,” Ybarra says. “We strive for empathy.” Many Greenfish clients are nonprofit and religious groups. Ybarra has filmed abandoned girls in Guatemala with the goal of raising money to build a new orphanage, and he also recorded citizens of Malawi to demonstrate the effectiveness of microloans.
As for the locals? Ybarra hopes companies will embrace VR to show the world what the city has to offer, from lounging in cabanas at the pool to snowboarding in Lee Canyon. He’s excited to help small businesses like the local taco shop gain exposure with VR, too. “I want to help them with their dream to succeed,” he says.