Using presence to change minds

[This story is about arguably the most important application of VR and presence; it also explicitly raises important research questions for presence scholars to investigate (see the paragraph that begins, “According to Bryan Mochizuki…”). The story is from Wired, where the original includes a photo gallery and three videos. –Matthew]

Screenshot from "My Mother's Wing"

VR Films Work Great for Charity. What About Changing Minds?

Angela Watercutter
March 1, 2016

New inventions, whether they’re gadgets or startups or biotech advancements, always come with some promise to “change the world.” Some do. Most don’t. A rare few find revolutionary uses that go far beyond what their creators initially envisioned. (Congrats, Google. Sorry, Google Glass.) The United Nations’ Gabo Arora would like virtual reality to be the latter—a technology meant to revolutionize gaming that has the potential to impact lives in ways far beyond Eve: Valkyrie.

Arora, a filmmaker who runs the UN’s United Nations Virtual Reality program, is taking another step to realize that hope, and he’s doing it by providing a greater understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His VR experience My Mother’s Wing takes viewers inside the lives of a family living in Gaza. Narrated by the family’s matriarch—a 37-year-old former school worker named Om Osama who has lost two sons in the conflict—it’s the fifth piece produced as part of UNVR, and it’s one Arora he hopes will transform VR from a tool of awareness-raising to one of actual change.

“With the other VR films we’ve demonstrated some success with fundraising,” Arora says, “so we wanted to take it to the next level and see if VR can be a tool for peace-building in the world’s most intractable conflict.”

My Mother’s Wing is premiering during an event in Tel Aviv tomorrow. Following the debut, Arora and a local UN worker will be taking a pair of Gear VR headsets into the streets of the city to show it to Israelis and document—with video and written statements—what effect the VR experience had on their attitudes about Palestine.

“In a country where we can not move freely as in other places, and some people are not free at all, this medium allows real magic,” says Inbal Shirin Anlen, the founder of the Steamer Salon Festival where My Mother’s Wing will premiere. “I am not naïve, I know it might be experienced as an aggressive act, but we truly want to get people close to people.”

If it succeeds, even a little bit, it wouldn’t be the first time VR has helped the UN reach that goal. Clouds Over Sidra, Arora’s VR experience about a Syrian refugee in Jordan, was shown to donors as part of a fundraising conference in Kuwait and helped raise $3.8 billion—almost twice what was projected. Similarly, Unicef found showing Clouds—which, like My Mother’s Wing, was produced with Chris Milk’s—doubled the number of people willing to donate to help Syrian refugees. Waves of Grace, another collaboration directed by Arora and focusing on Ebola survivors in Liberia, was made a part of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s International Ebola Recovery Conference.

In fact, it was the office of the UN secretary-general that encouraged Arora to take My Mother’s Wing, which you can watch today on the Vrse app, to Tel Aviv. Ban has been vocal about bringing stability to the region and ending the occupation; in January, he published an op-ed in the New York Times stating that he would always support both Israel’s and Palestine’s right to exist, but that “we are reaching a point of no return for a two-state solution.” VR may not be able to create a solution, but showing it in Tel Aviv could at least show citizens of one state how the other’s live.

“This Gaza piece is the first time where we’re going to try to bring it into these communities that have these stereotypes and these issues with each other, and try to see, ‘Does building this [VR] space do it?’” Arora says. “We want to try to humanize the suffering.”

Beyond the United Nations

Changing hearts and minds aside, Arora’s mission is central to figuring out what virtual reality’s future actually is. It might have been developed for gaming, but ever since the first Oculus developer kit hit the streets filmmakers, medical professionals, artists, and even sports trainers have been finding uses for the technology—and many of them have found that the intimacy that VR engenders gives it the potential to make you understand an unfamiliar person or situation a lot more than a photograph or Facebook. (That power is evidenced by the fact that so many stories about the technology make note of its ability cause tears. Guilty.)

And while Oculus founder Palmer Luckey sees his technology as a way to give “a happy life” to those less fortunate, it could just as easily make those more fortunate willing to help. “What we care about are the people who are local to us, and virtual reality can take anyone in any place and make them feel local to you,” Vrse’s Milk told me at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

The UN is trying to harness that—and it’s not alone. Last year, Amnesty International sent UK fundraisers out with VR headsets that were stocked with 360-degree images from the war in Syria; within a week, they saw a 16 percent increase in people signing up to donate. “We always thought seeing these immensely affecting images would have a genuinely transformative effect,” Reuben Steains, Amnesty’s Innovations Manager in the UK, said at the time. “But the early results have surpassed our expectations.”

Similarly, Charity: Water has made VR experiences about its work in Ethiopia, and education charity Pencils of Promise partnered with VR studio Ryot to create a piece about their efforts in Ghana. (Ryot and Vrse have also ventured into more journalistic endeavors, partnering with the Associated Press and The New York Times, respectively, on VR documentaries.) And last year the Clinton Foundation produced a VR series with Felix & Paul Studios that followed President Clinton visiting Africa on behalf of the Clinton Global Initiative.

According to Bryan Mochizuki, a CGI marketing director who was behind the organization’s use of VR, the reaction to the experience was unlike anything he’d ever seen from just showing photos, videos, or statistics. “Here you see the interweaving of an issue, a public that wants to take action but needs to be informed, and media,” he says. “If you look at that formula with VR as the third piece, then VR has the highest ceiling in terms of how well people can actually understand an issue.”

We don’t yet know how much more effective VR can be more than videos or social-media campaigns in raising awareness—or even if it’s more effective at all. There’s anecdotal evidence, sure, but the long-term effectiveness of VR in this area is still largely untested; Mochizuki calls it “the $64,000 question.” While Arora is looking to partner with a university like Stanford or MIT to quantify its effects, that’s a long-range proposition, and in the meantime he admits to fears that VR’s effect “will wear off.”

“The ability to put somebody in a moment, to put them in another place, can create an increased understanding of the work that we do,” says Unicef Innovation co-lead Christopher Fabian. “But does that create real loyalty to a cause or to an idea? Or is it something that’s just very moving or very emotional at a given point and there’s a regular drop off later on?”

There are other ways, too, that VR can have a societal impact that have nothing to do, particularly, with raising money or supporting NGOs. Like any other documentary format, VR can wake people up to issues they don’t encounter every day, or give them perspective they don’t get in the news.

Filmmaker Rose Troche and Morris May, CEO of VR production house Specular Theory, have been working on a series called Perspective that allows viewers to experience multiple sides of complex issues. The first, Perspective; Ch. 1: The Party, put you in the position of being both the girl and the guy in a sexual assault situation at a college party. The second, Perspective 2: The Misdemeanor, which premiered at Sundance in January, had four perspectives on a police confrontation: two teenagers on the streets of Brooklyn, and the two officers involved in shooting one of them.

“It’s beautiful that so many people use it as an empathy piece,” Troche says, noting that as VR becomes more corporate that could go away as the indie filmmakers behind the movement struggle with whether or not to go Hollywood. “There’s a certain earnestness to the making of VR now that is really about the beginning of the medium, where people are really wanting to use it to start conversations, to push a dialogue. I hope that stays.”

What Comes After Virtual Reality

Taking VR beyond its early stages is what Unicef is looking to do. The children’s relief organization has seen promising results from using VR for fundraising; that ensures that the organization will keep making VR, but it’s also just the start. As the technology evolves and VR gives way to augmented reality, those new technologies could be used as learning tools or provide a space for collaboration amongst people working for Unicef in different parts of the world.

It could also mean creating activities that let people interested in the organization actually try out the work Unicef does. “I think when we see that real connection, which is not just about empathy but also understanding, we’ll start to see the real power of this tool,” Unicef’s Fabian says. “Then we can design activities that are really out there to ask people to use their brains and use their hands and their capacity to help us solve certain problems. That’s a very different thing than just saying, ‘Hey, give money, this thing is really sad.’”

Moving beyond fundraising is Arora’s goal as well. After taking My Mother’s Wing to the cafes and beaches of Tel Aviv, he’ll will be taking it to show citizens in Jaffa. (He was advised not to try to show it in Jerusalem.) After that it’ll have an American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. But what Arora really wants is for My Mother’s Wing, and all the VR films he’s making, to become educational tools—for people on the street and the world’s decision-makers. Members of the United Nations, he says, would know the details of world crises and conflicts, but not always the realities. In other words, they’ve never met Om Osama. Now they can.

“I’m being very grandiose and very ambitious in what we think a film could do,” Arora says. “But I do think it’s testing VR for what it should be used for, and trying to make it work.”


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