It is unlikely that the average American will experience poverty firsthand in Africa, South America or elsewhere. However, with the adoption of virtual reality (VR) technology, citizens across the globe can gain insight into what it is like to live in poverty, deal with life-threatening diseases or survive without basic necessities.
In a change from traditional advocacy campaigns, the United Nations collaborated with VR Director and Pioneer Chris Milk to release two virtual reality films in 2015.
The first, “Clouds Over Sidra,” follows a 12-year-old Syrian refugee through her day at a bustling camp of 84,000 in Jordan. The film captures a 360-degree view, a navigable window into the young refugee’s world.
“Waves of Grace,” the second VR film for the UN Millennium Campaign, is narrated by a Liberian Ebola survivor confronting a still fragile community. Scenes of life, illness and death with unimaginable detail document the scale and impact of the Ebola crisis in a country with more than 10,000 cases.
Gabo Arora, co-creator of “Waves of Grace” and senior advisor for the UN Millennium Campaign, thinks incorporating VR experiences into the campaign against Ebola “will promote greater understanding of the socio-economic impact of the disease and empathy for those who continue to overcome it.”
Strong responses to the films upon release indicate the powerful emotions virtual reality films inspire. In addition to spotlighting an issue, VR conveys an experience many viewers react to with increased empathy and compassion.
Organizations utilizing virtual reality films noted a higher contribution rate after individuals viewed the film and an increase in monthly contributions. The films demonstrate the potential of VR to immerse viewers and ignite empathy. In turn, this drives fundraising and advocacy.
In March of 2015, the Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria added a screening of “Clouds Over Sidra” in the hope of increasing support for displaced Syrians. The conference raised $3.8 billion in funds, $1.5 billion more than projected. Other organizations have also turned to VR to convey refugee experiences.
The Clinton Global Initiative also released the short VR film “Inside Impact: East Africa” following President Clinton and Chelsea Clinton’s trip to visit CGI sponsored programs in East Africa.
The featured programs, called commitment sites by the organization, include rural solar power use, malaria prevention education and supplying hearing aids to people in need.
According to The Clinton Foundation, when speaking at CGI’s annual meeting, President Clinton emphasized the effectiveness of the VR experience. “I think that the film will give people the opportunity to understand the difference CGI members can make in a whole different way,” he says.
In November 2015, the New York Times debuted NYT VR, a virtual reality application for storytelling. The inaugural story, titled “The Displaced,” follows three children displaced from their homes in Lebanon, South Sudan and Ukraine.
According to the New York Times, Editor of the New York Times Magazine Jake Silverstein echoes Arora about VR’s potential for impact and says, “This new filmmaking technology enables an uncanny feeling of connection with people whose lives are far from our own.”
Although still an expensive medium for storytelling, VR offers an intensified and comprehensive experience. Viewers see the multi-faceted world of poverty and the solutions that they can support.
– Cara Kuhlman