VR for good

Two years ago, a phalanx of UNICEF fundraisers took to the streets in 40 countries, offering passersby the chance to view a virtual reality (VR) video via a Google Cardboard headset. Called Clouds Over Sidra, the eight-minute 360-degree film allowed viewers to experience a day in the life of a 12-year-old girl in the Zaataria Syrian refugee camp in Jordan—a cramped home, a makeshift school classroom, muddy streets. The upshot: While such teams typically raise money from 1 out of every 12 people they meet, these folks garnered contributions from 1 out of every 6. Plus, the average donation was 10% more than usual.

The audience tends to relate in an immediate way—to feel, they, too are experiencing those situations.Call it VR for good. Because VR films allow viewers to become immersed in the experiences depicted, they eliminate the barrier that stops people watching a conventional two-dimensional story from feeling completely a part of the action. As a result, the audience tends to relate in an immediate way—to feel, they, too are experiencing those situations. And the reaction generates a strong feeling of empathy.

With that in mind, an increasing number of organizations and activists are turning to the technology to boost the impact of their causes, often aided by initiatives launched by headset makers. “There’s an opportunity to change the world through VR,” says Barry Pousman, Clouds Over Sidra‘s co-creator and CEO of Variable Labs, a VR production company.

Pioneers and headset makers

One pioneering proponent of VR as a tool for social impact was the UN, which, in early 2015, formed the United Nations Virtual Reality Initiative. In fact, it was under the auspices of the UN SDG Action Campaign, along with UNICEF and Here Be Dragons, that Sidra was created, becoming the poster child for VR’s ability to move audiences to action. One particularly noteworthy result: After UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon screened the film during a conference for Syrian refugee donors held in Kuwait in 2015, the event raised $3.8 million in 24 hours, about 60% more than expected. Other UN VR films include Waves of Grace, about an Ebola survivor in Liberia, who cares for orphaned children, and My Mother’s Wing, focusing on a home in Gaza and a mother who lost two sons in a shelling attack on their school.

Headset makers also are getting in on the act. In April, HTC and Valve, creators of HTC Vive, a room-scale VR platform, announced the first grant recipients in its $10 million VR for Impact program, which is aimed at increasing an understanding of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs are a set of 17 objectives aimed at eliminating poverty, addressing climate change and helping to increase peace and prosperity. “A lot of developers in the VR space want to use their talent for something meaningful,” says Rickard Steiber, president of Viveport at HTC Vive. “This is tech for good.”

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The projects include such immersive films as Tree, focused on deforestation, in which viewers experience the fate of a rainforest tree, and The Extraordinary Honey Bee, a joint project with Haagen Dazs, Reach Agency and SPECTACLE to raise awareness about dwindling bee populations. Users shrink down to the size of a bee—or, the film makes them feel that way—to learn about the risks faced by bee colonies.

Then there’s Oculus’s VR for Good. Founded two years ago in partnership with Sundance and Nokia Ozo, it’s a year-long program through which veteran VR film makers and nonprofits team up. Example: The Harmony Project, a nonprofit in LA that provides after-school music classes for school-age children, to fill the void in arts programs caused by budget cuts. Last year, working with filmmakers, the group profiled a day in the life of three children, each involved in one of Harmony’s programs, including a mariachi band, a drum marching band and an orchestra. Last year, Oculus also announced it was devoting $10 million aimed at increasing the diversity of VR filmmakers.

Social change in the workplace

For now, Pousman’s VR production company Variable is focusing on using VR in education, especially in companies. “There’s a big opportunity for learning about diversity, inclusion, anti-sexual harassment training, and financial integrity,” he says. “That’s mostly done through videos now and everybody hates it.” But the focus is on not just linear video narratives, but more interactive stories, as well, allowing users to have added agency within the situation.

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For example, in a video for women about negotiation, viewers need to select one of four choices. If they opt for, say,walking out of the room, they would see what could happen as a result, learn that might not be the most effective response and then have the chance to pick again. “We thought about how we could effect social change in the workplace and what are the things we can influence,” says Dennis Bonilla, Variable’s CTO. “Social change is nuanced and there are many ways to achieve it.”


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