Virtual reality has genuine power to do good

At a time of immense political uncertainty and ugliness, it’s well worth highlighting some positives.

And one such positive is the fact that the game-changing agreements from last year’s COP21 Climate Summit in Paris are finally coming into force.

Paris 2015 was an optimistic time when global politicians and advisors gathered to combat climate change. The UN grabbed the opportunity to influence world leaders with their first use of virtual reality (VR) as a new tool in communicating climate change issues, transporting people with the power to engender change to pivotal locations on the frontline of the climate debate.

World leaders and heads of international development agencies were given an opportunity to partake in a 360-degree VR experience called 'Growing a World Wonder'. The VR film took key decision makers in Paris to the front line of Climate change at the edge of the Sahara to show them in VR Africa's ‘Great Green Wall’: a ground-breaking initiative backed by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, which aims to tackle urgent global challenges by growing the world's largest living structure across the entire width of Africa.

Alexander Asen, Public Campaign Manager of the Great Green Wall Initiative at the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, believes this powerful experience was partly responsible for subsequent pledges of $4 billion (USD) to advance the project over the next five years and says that the film “demonstrates the power of VR in influencing global decision making.”

VR has been described by trailblazers, like Chris Milk, as ‘the empathy machine’ because it transports people into a different world; a world where they are removed from their current physical reality and instead fully immersed in a virtual reality where they can get a more visceral feel for what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Although VR is still in its infancy, its ability to drive empathy is already being used by savvy charities like Plan UK to increase charitable donations. The organisation recently launched a VR film called Mamie’s Dream as part of its ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign – the world’s biggest campaign for girls’ rights.

Mamie’s Dream transports viewers to rural Sierra Leone to walk alongside 22-year-old Mamie, who is part of a local teacher training project supported by the charity.  Following Mamie in her daily life, the heart-warming VR film reveals the obstacles she has had to overcome – such as being shunned for rejecting FGM – to claim her right to become financially independent and realise her dreams.

Because VR is such a young medium, results regarding its effectiveness are still filtering through. But there are already several success stories out there: UNICEF in New Zealand found using VR headsets to show its Clouds over Sidra film to passers-by doubled the normal rate of support.

Similarly, when Charity: Water showed its VR film at a charity gala, the organisation far exceeded its fundraising goal. The film, which featured an Ethiopian girl collecting disease-infested water, created such a powerful experience that one donor upped his contribution from $60,000 to $400,000.

So it’s becoming clear that using VR to transport a potential donor into a thought-provoking situation where they are 100% engaged can be a real boon to cause-related organisations. And it’s a trend that’s set to get even stronger because, thanks to existing or imminent consumer VR headset launches from the world’s biggest tech players, VR is on the cusp of going mainstream. This means social causes that use VR will soon be able to reach a wide audience.

The immersive nature of VR lends itself to telling intimate character-driven stories because the viewer is given a better chance to step into the protagonist’s world. By temporarily changing the viewer’s literal and metaphorical perspective, VR experiences like Simon – a 360-degree film featuring a young man with cerebral palsy – really get people thinking about what it’s like to live someone else’s life. These thought-provoking experiences help cement an empathetic connection between the person watching the VR film and the social cause it promotes.

In a world where technology seems to constantly eat away at our lives, it sometimes feels hard to find a positive story. But using VR’s empathy potential to further social causes has got to be one of them.

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