Inside ICRC's Virtual Reality Unit

Members of the International Committee of the Red Cross's Virtual Reality Unit in Bangkok play computer simulation on laptops. Photo by: ICRC

WASHINGTON — For decades the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has regularly persuaded governments and armed factions to let them visit prisoner-of-war camps, jails and territories under military control. Afterward, Red Cross delegates sit down with those authorities to give them a detailed and confidential report on the conditions they have observed. Where they find evidence of extrajudicial killings, detainees denied adequate medical care, or other violations, delegates press the authorities to heed their obligations under international humanitarian law.

In recent months, Red Cross delegates have started bringing a new tool to these meetings: a thumb drive containing a short, custom-made video illustrating the violations they have found.

The videos, typically only two or three minutes long, contain lifelike 3-D computer-generated animations, made with the same technology that is used to make video games. Abuses are depicted in rich detail, but distinct uniforms, flags, and other signs that would identify the perpetrators are missing.

In fact, the Red Cross goes further. “We’ll completely change the context,” said Christian Rouffaer, a former Swiss artillery officer and head of the ICRC’s Virtual Reality Unit, which produces the videos. An attack on civilians that took place in a desert might be recreated in a mountain valley. A group of Southeast Asians who are suffering mistreatment might be recast as Africans. “The point is just to illustrate the principles,” he said.

Rouffaer believes such videos have an advantage over cellphone footage of actual abuses, which is becoming increasingly commonplace. By using animation, and not identifying the armed forces or the location where violations took place, “the authorities don’t get so defensive. They’re more open to discussion and the level of interaction is much higher,” he said.

This is humanitarian action in the 21st century, where various forms of computer simulation and virtual reality are fast becoming valuable tools for development and humanitarian organizations.

The ICRC established its VR Unit in 2014, after an experiment the previous year in making short, game-based animations to help teach international humanitarian law was deemed a success. The unit now counts among its staff a chief programmer, four 3-D artists, and a couple of video editors, in addition to Rouffaer. The unit is based in Bangkok, Thailand, the ICRC’s Asian hub, where skilled programmers and artists can be hired at a fraction of the wages they would earn in the U.S. or Europe.

While other NGOs are beginning to experiment with computer simulation and virtual reality technology, few are investing in its potential as seriously as the ICRC.

For humanitarian purposes, several different technologies — all more or less in their infancy — offer different benefits, including the ability to better prepare staff for deployment in potentially hostile or difficult environments.

For example, the ICRC uses its 3-D animated videos not only to communicate with authorities about observed abuses, but also to teach international humanitarian law to army officers in dozens of countries. “When we hear of an issue coming up often, we’ll put it into the video and present it the next time,” said Michael Pymble, a former legal advisor for the Australian Defense Force now in charge of the ICRC’s interactions with Ukraine’s army.

A still from the computer simulation. Photo by: ICRC

Created with video game engines, these videos can also be turned into interactive, multiplayer games, similar to commercial video games. The ICRC recently worked with the producers of the popular war game Arma 3 to create an add-on based on international humanitarian law and is working on its own video game dealing with the impact of war in urban settings on civilians, which it intends to release to the public in a few months. But the VR Unit has also recently begun using the technology to develop a product to train staff members on carrying out field evaluations — for example, of a hospital that has been bombed. “You’ll have to interact with various people outside who give you contradictory information,” said Rouffaer. “One person says ‘I saw a plane drop bombs.’ Another person says ‘I saw a car bomb explode.’” The scenario is designed to resemble the situations that Red Cross delegates typically find in the field in actual conflict zones. In the game, as in real life, “the information you get from people is always ambiguous,” said Rouffaer.

And then there is VR. Unlike videos produced with video game engines,VR products typically provide a total, 360 degree interactive environment. Viewers can look up, down, left, and right as they would in real life. These products are often made with actual filmed footage, but the images can be computer-generated as well. The most immersive experience comes from wearing a gogglelike headset that gives the impression of actually being in the situation shown. Other versions can be viewed on a computer or mobile device.

At the moment, VR technology is most commonly used by development and humanitarian organizations for advocacy work. “Forced from Home,” an exhibition about refugees by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), has been touring the U.S. for the past year. It includes a five-minute VR film viewed with a headset. “Many people come out deeply touched, sometimes crying,” said Negin Allamehzadeh, a video producer with MSF.

Other major organizations have also begun to use these technologies for outreach, fundraising, and training. MSF is leading the charge on VR, having created about 10 such products, including a VR film to train first responders to a mass casualty event, and a seven-minute time-lapse film instructing viewers on the week-long process of erecting MSF’s portable field hospitals. Amnesty International is also currently co-producing a VR film about Rohingya refugees, and is already helping to distribute an Al Jazeera and Contrast VR documentary, “I am Rohingya,” which can be viewed either with a headset or on a computer or mobile device.

MSF’s VR film demonstrates the process behind building a portable field hospital Via YouTube

Both groups have begun providing some of their fundraising canvassers with VR headsets to offer to people on the street or at special events so they can watch short, immersive appeals for support. Officials say that after seeing a well-produced VR appeal, people tend to be more generous. As Devex reported last year, UNICEF fundraisers experimenting with a VR tour of a refugee camp in Jordan found that 1 in 6 people who saw the film donated.

But these organizations have generally contracted to outside companies for the production. The ICRC appears to be unique in building up its own production capacity.

But why is the ICRC putting so much effort into developing new tools with these technologies? Insiders told Devex that a big part of the reasoning is a desire to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of staff training. The group, based in Geneva, Switzerland, is the branch of the Red Cross movement whose mission is to protect noncombatants in situations of conflict and violence. It has seen its work, and its staff, grow continuously over recent decades to a current level of more than 15,000 employees. In a bid to maximize its effectiveness, the ICRC has put increased focus on the training and professionalization of its staff.

ICRC officials say the use of these new technologies — the “gamification of training,” as Rouffaer puts it — increases the effectiveness of training while lowering costs. Those hired as delegates get only two weeks of intensive training before they are sent out to visit prisons or combat zones. Trainers used to rent building space and hire actors or borrow colleagues to simulate prison visits. Now, custom-made videos recreate the experience.

“A video is much more immersive. It helps us focus on what matters most,” said Hicham Hassan, who directs training in Bangkok for all ICRC delegates who will work in Asia. “This is precious. It allows people to be better prepared, so that when you go to a hospital or IDP [internally displaced persons] camp, you’re not going to be surprised.”

The Vimeo video https://vimeo.com/239747593 is not available.
Health care in danger Via Vimeo

Because of the ICRC’s unique mission, delegates repeatedly face the risk of armed attacks, bombings, landmines, or unexploded ordnance. Training videos, and the new interactive games and products being developed by the VR Unit, are intended to familiarize trainees with the dangers and teach them what to do to remain safe while carrying out their mission. The new tools “allow people to experiment, in all safety, with how to respond,” said Hassan.

The technologies have also been changing the way the ICRC teaches international humanitarian law to armies and armed factions around the world. “You can stand up and talk for a couple of hours,” said Pymble, the ICRC’s military liaison in Ukraine. “But what we find really useful is taking people on a walk-around” in a city meticulously recreated in 3-D with video game technology and shown on a computer monitor or projected onto a large screen, he said. “We might say, ‘Here is a bridge. Is it a legitimate target?’”

In the past, Pymble and his colleagues used large paper maps for this work. The new technology, he said, “doesn’t revolutionize anything, but participants get a bit more immersed in it.”

The videos tend to provoke more discussion of international humanitarian law’s numerous grey areas than did the older lecture or PowerPoint presentations, officials told Devex. For example, one scene in the video that Pymble uses shows a soldier on top of a town’s water tower, from where he can clearly track the enemy’s forces and pass the information on to his side’s artillery. The opposing army responds by blowing up the water tower with a missile.

Was the missile attack justified? In the ensuing discussion with Ukrainian officers, Pymble points out that, while the soldier is a legitimate target, the force used must be proportional. Since the water supply is essential for the town’s civilian population, destroying the water tower would be considered a violation of international humanitarian law.

Hans Goetze, a young German national, worked for two and a half years as a Thai interpreter before becoming the VR Unit’s chief programmer. In Thailand, he said, as in neighboring countries, cultural norms call for listening politely to an outside expert and not questioning anything they say.

Goetze said he was struck by the reaction to an ICRC presentation given to police officials in southern Thailand. The Red Cross delegate showed a short, custom-made clip dealing with the issue of how much force police could legitimately use in breaking up a demonstration that was unauthorized but where the protesters were unarmed.

“These were 40- and 50-year-old police and military officers,” he said. “They were surprised that we could show very specific scenes ... They were wowed by it.” In the end,  he said, “they opened up and were willing to talk.”

To create its realistic videos, the ICRC uses Unreal Engine 4, a video game engine — or framework software — available for free as long as the products made with it are not sold for profit.

Initially, the VR Unit spent half a year creating a whole city, along with soldiers, tanks, weapons, vehicles, and other “assets.” That initial investment was costly. “But once it’s finished, everything can be recycled, so the costs of creating new videos are very low,” said Rouffaer.

That’s good, because the unit is experiencing “nonstop demand” for videos and other products from various units within the ICRC as well as from partner agencies, said Rouffaer. At the same time, it is pushing ahead to apply new technologies, and has begun using motion sensing and facial recognition software to capture and incorporate more realistic movement and facial expressions in its videos.

In September, the unit released its first virtual reality production: a 2.5-minute, fully immersive visit to an overcrowded prison, viewed with a headset. It is intended to help trainee delegates prepare for the task in real life.

Rouffaer expects that moving forward the unit will devote more of its efforts to building interactive, multiplayer products resembling video games, and fully immersive VR products — both for use in staff training. One envisaged product is a VR first aid training film they hope to release next year that will better prepare trainees by incorporating the noise and confusion that is typical of real emergency situations.

With ICRC trainers clamoring for more, the unit expects to remain busy.

Update, Nov. 7: This story was amended to clarify that Amnesty International is helping to distribute “I am Rohingya,” which was produced by Al Jazeera and Contrast VR.

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About the author

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    Burton Bollag

    Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C. He was based for a number of years in Europe (Geneva, Prague and Bratislava) and as chief international reporter for Chronicle of Higher Education reported widely from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He has also done radio reporting (for NPR from Geneva) and TV reporting from various locations.