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VR for Global Awareness: Immersive Videos from the United Nations

“We are not doing this just to raise awareness but also to build empathy,” says UN Millennium Campaign senior advisor, Gabo Arora

As an economic development expert, Gabo Arora has experience in various advocacy efforts, from human rights to emergency relief; as a world traveler, he’s lived in Colombia, Zambia, India and Haiti. He has seen firsthand the plight of refugees in Jordan and experienced the aftermath of the Ebola crisis in Liberia. It was in response to these tragedies that Arora became a filmmaker, and on this path he discovered the potential that virtual reality (VR) filmmaking has for communicating experiences.

Arora, who serves as a senior advisor for the United Nations Millennium Campaign, an initiative of the U.N. Secretary General to promote citizen engagement, takes advantage of new media technologies to promote social causes and creates videos that cast the spotlight on environmental and human rights issues.

His work with the virtual reality production studio Vrse.works has included the United Nations VR documentaries “Clouds Over Sidra” and “Waves of Grace.” These films immerse viewers in the landscape of a world in turmoil, from Syria to Liberia, in a way that traditional 2D or even 3D films cannot.

“Clouds Over Sidra” follows a 12-year-old girl in the Za’atari camp in Jordan, which is home to 84,000 Syrian refugees. The camp has been featured in many news reports since it became a quasi-city, but this immersive VR film allows viewers to actually be transported there—and in the process it offers a greater perspective on the camp and what it is like to live there day after day.

“Clouds Over Sidra” was commissioned by the United Nations in partnership with Samsung to offer perspective into the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people. It premiered on the Samsung Gear VR platform at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last year.

“We are not doing this just to raise awareness but also to build empathy,” says Arora. “Even though the situation in Syria is thousands of miles and worlds away from viewers trying to process what is happening, we feel that virtual reality, and ‘Clouds of Sidra’ in particular, builds a connection between viewer and subject that traditional film and traditional storytelling struggle to do. We have seen reactions of empathy and understanding in viewers—from an elderly woman in Canada who has never seen a refugee to a woman in Kuwait who sees them every day—and that speaks to the power of the medium.”

Most viewers at home know only of the Syrian civil war, if they know it at all, from a few minutes of coverage on the evening news. VR technology enables viewers to feel like they are present in the camp—with all of the good and, sadly, the ugliness.

“The biggest difference is the immersion of 360° VR,” explains Vrse.works co-founder Patrick Milling Smith. “We are no longer showing people a window. VR allows the viewer to step through that old frame or window and into the environment.

“Chris Milk described VR as an empathy machine, and it’s an apt description,” Milling Smith says of the founder and creative director of Vrse.works. “You now have the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes, to step into their world and have the freedom to observe and take in everything around you. With well-crafted VR experiences, you gain a sense of ‘presence.’ The presence is what makes you feel like you are truly there, and the experience is obviously that much more visceral and arresting for it. The response to experiencing these situations, stories and environments in this manner is a game-changer in terms of a message truly resonating.”

Traditional reporting of the war in Syria, as well as past conflicts in Bosnia, Uganda, Cambodia and elsewhere, relies on 2D video that doesn’t really provide a first-person perspective. As Milling Smith suggests, traditional video reporting offers just a small window into an experience. The 360° VR films as Arora is making them are capable of doing so much more.

“There is an immersive ability to be there, to be present, and share the experience with the individuals in the films,” Arora says. “One of the things I hear a lot after someone has watched the film is how powerful eye contact is. When you look someone in the eye in virtual reality, you feel like you are connecting in a way that you do not in film. When you put a headset on, you enter another world—and unlike in traditional film and video, you can’t look away.”

“You are no longer merely watching an editorialized frame of the action someone chooses you to see,” adds Milling Smith. “You have the freedom to explore and engage all your senses.”

The question then becomes where this form of storytelling will go next. For Milling Smith, the potential is great. “VR is a completely different medium that is taking us a big step closer to reality,” he says. “People need to experience things for better understanding and appreciation, especially in a world where we are constantly bombarded with messages but are rarely truly present or receptive to them.”

“We are only seeing the beginnings of what is possible with virtual reality,” notes Arora. “It is very exciting to see a technology in its infancy already creating such a broad impact with viewers. But there are two things that will only get better as virtual reality becomes widespread.”

The first is access, he says. VR headsets are not yet widely available in homes or schools, but gaming technology and the advent of VR gaming could help bring widespread adoption. Arora suggests that VR technology becoming commonplace would be “an incentive for new VR filmmakers to make more sophisticated films in VR—because the natural audience is larger.”

From there, the technology could see limitless improvements to the applications of VR filmmaking, from augmented reality technology to the ability for viewers to move within virtual reality space.

“I see there being a lot more tools for storytelling in the coming months and years,” Arora adds.

The next project for Arora and Vrse.works is “My Mother’s Wing,” which tells the story of a mother who lost two children in the last Gaza-Israel conflict.

“We have a number of films in the pipeline on subjects ranging from the livelihoods on the Ganges to the plight of climate refugees and environmental degradation in the Amazon,” Arora says. “There are so many issues that could use a closer focus by VR and VR filmmaking, and we are very excited about what’s next for us.”   

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