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Ambitious Project Inspire snares national prize from among 19,000 entries

Winning the contest was the easy part

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Ideas happen. Or sometimes, they almost don’t. Janette Luu, an anchor at channel 21, was unaware of Visa’s Ideas Happen contest until a friend pointed it out to her. Ideas Happen is a nationwide contest that awards $25,000 dollars to 12 winners in the categories of Entrepreneur, Community, and Self-Expression. As the deadline was closing in, Luu submitted her idea, Project Inspire. It was chosen from over 19,000 entries to become one of the winners in the Self-Expression category.

The 12 winners range from the Baker’s Edge Baking Pan (“every serving baked within the Bakers Edge has that delicious chewy edge”) to “Seeds For Hope,” which seeks to establish an organization to spread health awareness among poor communities in Kenya.

But while these and other proposals were creative in their own right, Luu’s idea really stood out. “To help provide understanding and to show connections between all religions, I want to create a traveling immersive experience called Project Inspire that would take you on a unique spiritual journey by enveloping you in images, light and sound,” her description reads. “This high-tech experience would not only give a brief history of every faith, but it would also immerse you into several different spiritual environments.”

Sounds interesting, but it hardly lends itself to the kind of short, succinct proposal that usually wins these kinds of contests. Two other winners in the Self-Expression category were a book of photo essays and a documentary film. But what the heck is an immersive experience?

“An ‘immersive experience’ is putting people into environments where they’re not just passively taking something in, like film or music, but where they’re a part of it,” explains Matt Stuart, Luu’s creative partner. “You could sit there and lecture somebody about trying to understand different cultures or beliefs, but if you can make them experience something, it’s so much more powerful.”

Luu and Stuart envision Project Inspire as a semi-permanent multimedia installation, encompassing imagery, sound, interactive elements, and even smell. There will be an educational and historical element to it, but the whole point of an immersive experience is to draw you in. “It’s going to be a huge thing, where you’re actually trying to recreate the fundamental experiences of things which are components of every faith,” Stuart says. “For example, there might be an area dedicated to imagery that’s the fabric of all these different faiths. An area called Reflections, where people can listen to individuals’ personal reflections on faith and spirituality, as well as record their own.”

Luu and Stuart have had experience with this sort of project. In January and August 2004, they organized the Popfilter events, which incorporated a wide variety of media, from imagery and sound to spoken word.

Project Inspire is something much bigger and more elaborate. Luu was raised Buddhist, and writes in the submission that “living in Indiana, it has always been difficult for me to discuss Buddhism with my friends and how it is similar to their faiths.” If Luu and Stuart were worried that voters in the Idea Happen contest wouldn’t “get” such an ambitious project, the reaction showed otherwise. At a time when so much attention is devoted to the differences between separate religions and faiths, a project that addresses the similarities seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people. “Over the course of the contest, we got e-mails from all over the world,” says Luu. “We got responses from Singapore, Australia, Europe, Canada… A lot of people kept saying ‘it’s exactly what we need right now. It’s the right project at the right time.’”

“After we got all these responses from people, it became much larger than what we first envisioned,” Luu says. “We didn’t look at the entries and think ‘hmm, maybe we should tone it down a bit.’”

The challenge, Stuart explains, is to avoid turning Project Inspire into a sort of Disney-fied tour of world religions, to demonstrate what different faiths might have in common while also acknowledging what makes them unique. “We’ve heard from people who ask, ‘Is this going to be some homogenous thing that glosses over religions?’” he says. “The tricky thing about this is we don’t want to just give people information, we want to give them an experience. We don’t just want to make it so that we’re creating these environments, like ‘oh, now you’re in a temple. Oh, now you’re in a church.’ Because the important thing in all this is the internal part, so we can experience how these things feel. You get back to these basic underpinnings of all faiths, what’s inside us that makes us seek these things.”

Well, that’s the overall creative challenge to Project Inspire. Developing a multimedia experience this ambitious entails a whole course full of administrative, technical, and financial hurdles that have to be overcome. “The Ideas Happen Contest is a great way to kick start it,” Stuart says. “It helps start a buzz, it’s a little bit of seed money, it gives us a little more credibility.” With the prize money ($25,000), they’re setting up a non-profit, and are also enlisting the help of religious scholars who contacted Luu when they heard about Project Inspire. Luu and Stuart estimate it might take a year to get Project Inspire up and running. “The process we’re going through reflects the whole project,” Luu says. “It’s about bringing people together, it’s about learning different faiths, and it’s about some kind of new dialogue that needs to come out of that.”

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