Virtual Reality Will Communicate the Horror of the Ordinary

Published 8/31/15
Image: New Line Cinema

“The disorientation drove home just how immediate Ebola-ravaged Liberia had felt during those six minutes.”

A new type of Virtual Reality (VR) will distill empathy in billionaire donors and heads of state by showing them what the new media advisor for the UN calls “the horror in the ordinary.” The new technology will bring decision makers closer to the realities of what vulnerable communities face—what geographical distance and emotional disconnection often make impossible.

The UN Millennium Campaign has released two VR documentaries as part a special initiative to support the Millennium Development Goals through civic engagement. Clouds Over Sidra follows the life of a Syrian refugee in Jordan, while Waves of Grace transports viewers to Liberia, where an Ebola survivor uses her immunity to help those afflicted in her community. Clouds is now in 40 countries, 15 languages and (soon to be) classrooms, and other immersive films are on the way. Success of these films shows VR as a powerful tool for building awareness and empathy, especially considering how viewers refer to them as personal experiences, despite the technology’s apparent limitations.

Virtual Reality for empathy (VR4E, my acronym) presents new opportunities for high profile philanthropists to connect their fans with causes. With the adoption of the UN SDGs in September, I hope the social sector will consider the potential of VR to increase awareness around these and other important global issues.