Google is teaching you how to use virtual reality to advance your cause

A man using a Google Cardboard device. Photo by: Ryan Lash / TED / CC BY-NC

SAN FRANCISCO — In a new 360 degree video, the Eastern Congo Initiative takes viewers to meet the farmers it supports, with the voice of actor Ben Affleck, who co-founded the organization, narrating the interactive experience.

This nonprofit advocacy and grantmaking initiative is one of the organizations that Google worked with to pilot its new philanthropy program, Daydream Impact. The Silicon Valley-based technology company announced today that its virtual reality team will provide training and tools to organizations that want to produce immersive and 360 degree video content to support their causes. Daydream Impact will offer a free Coursera online training program, and those who complete the course can apply for six-month equipment loans and support from Google.

Devex caught up with Sarah Steele, program manager on Google’s virtual reality team, to discuss the program and get a preview of its value for organizations working in global health and international development.

“We had a lot of partnership requests, a lot of funding requests, a lot donation requests,” Steele said, explaining that there was a lot of interest from the nonprofit sector in products such as Google Cardboard, a low-cost head mount to view immersive content on smartphones. “It becomes really difficult to say ‘let’s support this program, versus this program.’”

Steele leads Jump Start, Google’s camera loan program, and has managed a number of VR campaigns, including a project to ship out 1.3 million Google Cardboard units in partnership with the New York Times. She said she and Jennifer Holland, a program manager who works on products such as Google Classroom and Google Expeditions, which offers virtual field trips, put their heads together to figure out the most sustainable way to help nonprofits and other changemakers interested in using immersive storytelling to advance their work. The result was Daydream Impact, which is organized by three people within Google — one full-time and two part-time staff members.

The Coursera course will take participants 10 to 15 hours to complete, and includes information on the different types of equipment needed to produce a 360 degree video; how to develop an idea; and what you need to think about for the various stages of the project, from scripting to camera work to promoting your video.

The course represents all that the Google VR team has learned over the past three years. For example, when it comes to questions to ask yourself when developing an idea, Google proposes: Is there a reason to put the viewer in your scene? Will it give your viewers an experience that they otherwise couldn’t have? Will your recording environment be rich with things to see? Do you want your viewers looking all around versus at a fixed focal point? Will viewers want to continue watching beyond the initial ‘that’s cool’ moment?

The Eastern Congo Initiative notices that when people visit Congo, it changes everything in terms of their future engagement. They wondered whether VR might create a similar experience for people for less money than flying halfway around the world.

“From the beginning of ECI, storytelling has been a huge part of our mission. Most people in the world will never travel to Congo; never get to meet these incredibly resilient, resourceful people, working to better their country in the face of enormous challenges. We believe that VR has the potential to bridge that divide, to tell the Congolese story in a more personal, immersive way than traditional 2D video,” Dane Erickson, managing director of ECI, told Devex via email. “When we saw an opportunity to connect our supporters and the public at large to the Congolese people we work with, we jumped at that chance.”

Erickson said he would advise other organizations to start by asking whether you have a story to tell. “Is there something intrinsic about the people you work with on the ground, or in the field, that will connect to viewers?” he asked. “Are there elements of your work that are hard to grasp unless you are there in person?” Those are important questions for organizations to answer in deciding whether to pursue a project like this, which requires an investment in time, if not money, he said.

Harmony Labs, a nonprofit organization that tracks media influence, created three anti-bullying films as part of the pilot, and produced a toolkit on VR to inspire social change. The report explains how VR allows viewers to see the world through new perspectives; how spatial experiences enable viewers to interact with otherwise inaccessible places or times; and how experiencing the benefits of certain practices can lead to behavior change, to name a few examples. Harmony Labs also notes some of the challenges of working in VR, including audience reach and accessibility, since the medium is not yet pervasive; technological lifespan, since what was once state-of-the-art becomes outdated rather quickly with this technology; and ethics, since there is still more that needs to be understood about the psychological impact of VR.

The barrier that Google is helping organizations overcome with Daydream Impact is expertise and expense. There remain relatively few individuals able to film and edit in the VR medium, and whether done in house or in partnership, production can be expensive. Organizations ranging from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia to the United Nations are experimenting with VR, and Google wants to lower the barrier to entry for smaller organizations with more limited resources.

The Coursera online training program is available starting Wednesday, and applications will open every six months for equipment and support from Google. “The criteria we have for picking these organizations is we look for the measurability and impact of the project you’re trying to do,” Steele told Devex. The committee that selects projects will include representatives from the VR team, the Google.org team, the Geo for Good team, and the YouTube Impact team.

“If you want to democratize a medium, which is what we want to have happen with VR, you have to let people fail in a space,” Steele added. “You have to give them the tools to test and experiment and potentially fail. Right now, it is very expensive to fail in VR.”

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About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.