Wesley Della Volla is an Adjunct Lecturer at Georgetown University and Founder of Meridian Treehouse in Washington. With an extensive career working in the immersive storytelling space with National Geographic, he particularly works through our favourite medium, virtual reality.
As you’ll hear in the interview, his focus changed after his diagnosis with young onset Parkinson’s, and he’s passionate about building transformative virtual experiences for people with neuro-diversity and physical limitations.
This conversation was part of a double episode on Parkinson’s, released alongside an interview with Clyde Campbell of the Shake it Up Foundation.
Ash de Neef: All right Wes thanks so much for joining us on the program.
Wesley Della Volla: Happy to be here.
Ash de Neef: And it looks like you’ve got set up quite nicely over there in your log cabin in West Virginia, we’re pretty jealous over here in Australia.
Wesley Della Volla: Yeah, we’re lucky right now we can still travel. And it’s just a few hours drive from Washington DC where I normally am. So I’m actually overlooking a very picturesque, West Virginia farm valley with silos and farm equipment, and it’s rather idyllic.
Ash de Neef: Well maybe you can give our audience a bit of background about you and the work that you do.
Wesley Della Volla: So I am a lifelong storyteller. I was a TV producer for many years with national geographic, also a music journalist for a Grammy. And then helped with textbooks with national geographic again, and then my last role with the national geographic society was the director of live events and experiences. And one of my crowning glories still I have to say is creating the world’s largest permanent virtual reality theater at national geographic’s headquarters, in 2018.
But since then, I’ve actually started a company and kept it going for over a year. And here we are 17 months later.
Ash de Neef: Yeah, very interested to hear, especially about the VR work that you’ve done, that really ticks our box here at SilVR Adventures for virtual reality. But I think to segue maybe about your experience of a diagnosis and life with Parkinson’s.
Cause I understand you were diagnosed maybe a few years ago.
Wesley Della Volla: So the first time anyone brought up something that I would later realize was a Parkinson’s symptom, was when I was about 31 one of my friends noticed that when I walked, I didn’t swing my right arm. I didn’t think anything of it. I had a puppy at the time, a little pit mix who took all of my strengths to keep on the leash. And that was just the one I used, so I figured it had just become used to being at my side while I walked my dog. And then I started to notice that I couldn’t brush my teeth or really eat with my right hand and I am right-handed.
I also notice that my writing was getting, just getting really hard to write. Like the dexterity had gone away. So I had been an athlete all my life had wrestled swam cheer-led, I assumed that maybe this was just an old, athletic injury coming up to rear its head in your mid thirties as they tend to do.
And I went to a hand surgeon and he recommended go see an occupational therapist and then recommended I have cubital tunnel surgery. But before he did that, he sent me to get a test, one last task. And got some results back they couldn’t share with me yet. So I go to my occupational therapist who is an overly assertive Kiwi, so she got the reports and in it were the words Parkinsonian like symptoms.
Ash de Neef: Hmm.
Wesley Della Volla: So that was the first time I got to see that in writing. Thankfully, my overly assertive, Kiwi’s also an asshole and refused to let me cry. She just beat me up for another half an hour and massage my joints because that’s what I needed. So I found out the day before my 35th birthday that I had Parkinson’s.
And what happened in the next four months is a pure sign of either coping with something very well or most likely denying it wholeheartedly. In the next four months I completed a series of four high profile events tied to the National Geographic’s race issue, the magazine.
Which actually helped in so many ways, get me ready for what was to come next.
And then by October 18th, that launched the world’s largest permanent virtual reality theater.
Ash de Neef: Nice. A very busy and I’m sure emotionally draining and confusing time. Flashing forward to 2021, do you feel like having the diagnosis has helped in any way?
Wesley Della Volla: Yes. it was my doctor and my good friend, Sean, his father passed away Parkinson’s a couple of years ago, who said “ just keep moving. That’s all it is because once you stop it doesn’t come back.”
So I kept moving. I moved, I was applying for jobs outside of National Geographic being flown across the country for flash round reviews and April, along with producing those four events, not to mention the other a hundred events that were going on as part of my job responsibility. Wwo weeks in an Amazonian rainforest and building the theater.
Ash de Neef: I kind of wanted to ask you when you said that you keep moving and you’re trying to just keep going as much as you can. Do you feel like there’s a drive to go before things start becoming more serious? or what’s the feeling there? Cause you described it like constant motion a little bit.
Wesley Della Volla: yes. The reason I move, keep moving and do so much is I don’t know how much time I have
And I’m not done yet. But I’ve always been someone who, when they grieve, they create. Energy has to go somewhere and unless it goes into something that I can be proud of and creative with I don’t think I’m going to be happy with where else it goes,
Ash de Neef: That’s I mean, that’s a great response to to find it as energy. I know you mentioned that a lot of your work now feels like you’re trying to focus on accessibility and that that came out of the diagnosis and your journey through Parkinson’s. That you want to create work that includes people who will all sorts of different challenges in life.
Wesley Della Volla: There’s no point in creating science communication, no matter how good it is, if it can’t be easily digested and understood by people. And I don’t want people who have physical limitations or neurodiversity or even fiscal diversity being unable to access it.
And with, 360 video, it’s a little easier because oftentimes those aren’t reliant as much on hands and movement and controllers in that way. But I know for Parkinson’s in particular and other mental disorders, there are a lot of things that make it not really usable for us.
Ash de Neef: Just to jump in here when we’re talking about 360 and immersive, we’re talking about virtual reality right?
Wesley Della Volla: Yes, Yeah. So what I was working on was 360 documentaries. So 360 video that is passive. You engage with it by viewing it and listening. You’re not actually interacting with the controllers in any way, shape or form, except to play the video.
So focusing on those, they’re pretty easy and pretty straightforward. But it’s very hard to play 6-def games.
Ash de Neef: Yeah, that’s a really nice tie into the work we do at SilVR Adventures where we’re doing virtual reality for older adults, who don’t necessarily have a high level of cognitive functioning or physical mobility. And a lot of the work that we do is in the 360 video space, as you were saying, which you don’t need to engage with controllers for. It’s more of the head movement and the immersive, audio and video sorts of things.
When you were doing Expedition Everest 360, was that, a video project?
Wesley Della Volla: So that was a 360 documentary, so the more passive interacting. And that was actually a piece I was the VR development producer for, along with a great team led by Martin Edstrom in Sweden. And that was an amazing experience as a four-part series. And what we were trying to do was showcase to the world what it was like to be 27,000 feet up on the side of the Everest, installing the world’s highest weather station.
Along with that also showcase the biodiversity, the team, and some other unique sites. Because most people when they think of the Himalayas they think of just the tips of the mountains. They don’t think of all the biodiversity that’s on as you get lower and the climate changes. And how actually the climate is changing because of the climate crisis.
So that was a really important thing to create because 95% of the world will never be there. We’ll never get there. And this has the opportunity to connect with them, feel that they have been there.
And that was actually the most fun was playing that with a remote theater system, in Aspen, Colorado during X Games. So we were on the main, like festival way for all these winter sports enthusiasts, but in four days we were able to take 5,500 people to Mount Everest with us.
But ultimately watching the reaction on people’s faces asking questions about Everest after seeing it was so rewarding and so exciting. People would forget they’re in the middle of the X games. They would all have their headsets on together playing at the same time through a shared, synchronized immersive reality experience system and would forget, and just be like, “oh my God, mom, did you see this?” And kids telling their mom to look left friends, telling their friends to look right till they’d scream, because they’d be right on the edge.
Like it was so much fun to watch. They forgot that, they weren’t there with their friends. For just a moment you completely forgot where you were and had fun.
Ash de Neef: So good. Yeah, it’s such a cool idea to take people in such an immersive and exciting way. That’s what really excites me about virtual reality as well. You can’t really explain it until you’ve had the headset on, but you are there and it feels like it.
So when you were making the world’s largest, permanent virtual reality theater, what was the content experience in that? And what was the sort of scenario?
Wesley Della Volla: So what happened was, I was now leading a team that oversaw 130 year old institution, which is Nat Geo live. So National Geographic has been telling stories live onstage before it had a magazine. And the reason I brought in a legacy thing is not to brag about Nat Geo or anything like that. It’s that we had to take 130 year institution and change it. And so that’s what I was doing under my tenure as director of live events and experiences, was changing it.
And what we traditionally had were the dirty L words, lectures. So trying to change up what we offered as programming, the VR theater was a big part of that. But in order to do that I had to make something my audience would understand, which was, they were used to 60 minute lectures.
So how do you make programming with VR that fits that? And through one of our grantees and explorers, Mike Lubezki, there was the perfect opportunity to try this. He had some VR and 360 that he had turned into a show called Paddle Boarding with Polar Bears, which you in fact, two and 360, which is pretty amazing. So VR was always best for taking the places you couldn’t go.
So the great thing about hearing a National Geographic Explorer or anyone who’s been to places like the boiling river in the Amazon, you have to be there to really get it, and this is as close as we actually get to being there to really get it. So when you’d have a speaker talking about the leopard seal in Antarctica, or getting nose to nose with them. The moment that leopard seal starts to come nose to nose, you put a headset on it that leopard seal is nose to nose with your nose. And there is no better way to get close.
Ash de Neef: Wow it sounds like you found a way to, to use the VR is as part of a program, not just the sole focus, but to augment the presentations and engagement that you’re offering in other areas as well.
Wesley Della Volla: Yup. And part of that, I think really came down to what is VR best for? It is taking you somewhere you can’t go or to a scale or time you can go. And I really think that those are some of the key things that VR is very good for. So if I can’t, let’s say, go to Bear’s Ears National Monument in the American west, you take people there, because I’m never going to be able to go there. I’m not native, I’m not an elder. So these spaces are not meant for me.
But they are important to me because they’re part of American history. They’re part of our global human history. So I want to know about them. And this is a way to transport an entire audience of 450 people to those sacred Kivas in Bear’s Ears National Monument so they felt how important they were. So they cared about them, so they wanted to protect them.
One big lesson I’ve learned from that geo and I think VR is key for this, is show, not tell.
Ash de Neef: yeah.
Wesley Della Volla: And VR sums that up no better way. It is I’m going to show you, I’m going to take you there. There is nothing closer to teleportation than we have right now than VR.
Ash de Neef: Yeah. I’m just thinking about the experiences that I’ve been in you know, I’ll make a 360 video and we’ll use that with the headsets and I’ll be editing on my computer. Putting the sound together and all that and like, “oh yeah, yeah I know this one.” And then put the headset on I’m like, “oh my goodness. I’m here. What the hell is this?”
And then I’ll start getting memories of being in the place or, you know, wondering what’s around the next corner. It’s, yeah it’s something else.
We’re almost at a time Wes, but before we do, can you chat to us about your company Meridian Treehouse?
Wesley Della Volla: Yeah. So Meridian Treehouse. was born out of necessity and creativity. But what we focus on now is strategic storytelling and immersive design innovation experiences. A little bit of everything, kind of a one-stop for science communicating and various new techniques.
So the first thing we ever did as a company, we partnered with two long-term collaborators and we created a virtual festival to celebrate all things for DC. It was a month and a half into the pandemic. We all missed our neighbours, our favourite bars, or favourite nightclubs or favourite performers and artists.
So we put together ambitious 18 hours, straight Instagram live event and it was a huge success, and everyone felt connected. We raised money, we won a Webby honor for it. So that’s the things I want to do is how do you connect people and keep them not feeling isolated when we are physically distanced?How do you keep that connection?
And so that’s what I focus on is connecting educators with learners, connecting scientists with storytellers and that’s just the beginning. So there’s so much more, I’m only a year and two months into the company so hopefully there’s just the beginning.
Ash de Neef: Can people find out more, is there a website that you can direct people to?
Wesley Della Volla: There is a website, it’s meridiantreehouse.com.
So there you can see some of the past work. You can see some of the press that we’ve gotten and see some of our collaborators, which is slowly expanding as we do more and more projects. So really some of my favourite people, I get to create magic lift, which is kind of amazing.
Ash de Neef: Awesome, well Wes thank you so much for for sharing all your work and all your stories.
Wesley Della Volla: Thank you.