Does development need virtual reality?

By Catherine Cheney 01 February 2016

A man wearing a virtual reality headset. Could international organizations use virtual reality to reach new audiences and boost fundraising efforts? Photo by: Maurizio Pesce / CC BY

Sitting in the office swivel chair, I was skeptical that anything would make me look and act like the people around me spinning in circles, gaping and pointing, pointing their chins up and down and all around.

I pulled the headphones over my ears, fastened the headset to my face, and waited for the start of a virtual reality film titled “Inside Impact: East Africa.” I was transported from the Social Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley, California, to Tanzania, where I sat in a room with Bill Clinton and a Solar Sister entrepreneur. While I did not want to leave this world, where I was just steps from the former president in a quiet living room with kids watching from the corner and birds chirping outside, another part of me wanted to reach out and say something to Robert Holzer, the executive producer of the film who stood right beside me.

A week earlier, I was in Peru with the former president, in real life, reporting for Devex on Clinton Foundation projects in the country, and it was both scary and exciting to admit that the encounter inside the headset felt almost as real.

“I’ve had the opportunity to watch thousands of people see the film and see firsthand the reaction and, much like yourself, I’ve never experienced such a visceral reaction to any form of media,” said Holzer, CEO of Matter Unlimited, a creative agency focused on social impact. “People are left with something closer to what a memory is, versus what they are left with when it is something that they just watched, and that to me is the wild difference of VR.”

One year ago, diplomats waited in line at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to see “Clouds Over Sidra,” the first film shot in virtual reality for the United Nations. Wearing Samsung Gear VR headsets, they were transformed from viewers into participants, as they followed a 12-year-old through a refugee camp in Jordan.

For Gabo Arora, a senior adviser at the U.N. who now works for its SDG Action campaign, it took some time to convince the secretary-general’s office of the impact VR could have.

“It was seen as a party trick,” he told Devex. “Others in the office felt that it was voyeurism. But I tried to explain to them that it was a way of not just bringing the stories into our space but bringing us into their space, and it was really changing that hierarchy. We can experience the story and act on it.”

After the summit in Davos, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon insisted the film be screened at the Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria in Kuwait in March 2015. Arora said the film was a key reason the event generating $3.8 billion rather than the expected $2.3 billion. So it should come as no surprise, he said, that VR will also be a part of the upcoming Syria donors conference taking place in London this week.

UNICEF fundraisers in 40 countries are taking “Clouds Over Sidra” to the streets with devices like Google Cardboard, a VR device priced at $20, And 1 in 6 people who see the film donate.

So it seems that VR could offer a significant return on investment, especially when global development organizations leverage partnerships so they are not footing the bill. For example, Oculus, the virtual reality company acquired by Facebook, funded “Inside Impact: East Africa.”

Devex caught up with Holzer at the last annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, where he said the film accomplished what otherwise would have required visits to the field, like the one Devex joined in Peru, demanding far more time and money.

Robert Holzer, executive producer of “Inside Impact: East Africa,” talks with Devex at the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting.

“It’s all about partnerships,” Arora said. “I think we fail to realize in the development sector how much people want to help us, especially when it comes to the private sector, and what this can do for them in terms of leveraging their own brand.”

Arora spoke with Devex by phone during a brief free moment at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where he screened Waves of Grace, a project done in partnership with VICE News that takes viewers to Liberia to meet Ebola survivor Decontee Davis.

“People are lining up to hear an Ebola survivor’s story, and that’s the result of this innovative technology,” he said. He described how VR can engage new audiences in social issues. Imagine, he said, the power of a 15-year-old opening his Oculus Rift headset to find Clouds over Sidra waiting for him next to the rollercoaster video he had intended to watch.

2015 was a pivotal year for VR, and in 2016, new products are coming down the pipeline that promise to drive the quality of VR up and the cost of producing and consuming VR down. At a recent Hacks and Hackers event gathering of journalists and developers in San Francisco, California, the founder of Metta, a virtual reality video platform currently in beta, recommended a 360-degree camera that retails for $350.

While Holzer said it is still early days, he also noted how impressed he has been by the rate of change in VR. “It’s so amazing to see what we’re capable of doing now and things coming down the line. I haven’t been this excited since I saw the World Wide Web,” he said.

Not everything is suited for VR. The storytelling method has a unique ability to elicit empathy, but with that comes a real risk to make subjects as well as viewers uncomfortable. “Because it is such a visceral experience, I think that some ethical and moral decisions have to be made in story development work, which we are thinking very carefully,” Holzer said.

Also, as VR becomes mainstream, telling stories that drive action will become all the more difficult, said Dylan Roberts, who has produced virtual reality videos for RYOT News, including a 360-degree tour of a refugee camp in Kurdistan.

“I think more people are interested in the technology first and the story comes second,” Roberts told Devex. He explained how, because the field of VR film is still new, everyday scenes have a wow factor in the same way that, when cameras were first released, an image of a tree could capture our attention and imagination. But as the audience for VR grows so, too, will the expectations for quality. And it will be more difficult to bet on any one piece of content getting bang for its buck. “It will come back to who’s the best storyteller, what’s your access, and how can you package it?”

Arora, who said he has “turned the U.N. into a production unit,” admitted that smaller NGOs do not have the same ability as the U.N. or the Clinton Foundation to partner with companies like Oculus or Google. But they might consider how to integrate existing VR content into their programming or offer relationships on the ground that might make emerging VR filmmakers more willing to offer their production skills.

“What filmmakers want more than anything is access and trust in a community and local NGOs have that in spades,” he said.

Want to try it out yourself? Check out Inside Impact: East Africa on Facebook with your Firefox or Chrome browser, where you can use your cursor to navigate in 360, or watch Waves of Grace with or without Google Cardboard on the Vrse Virtual Reality app on iPhone. 

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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