The United Nations is turning VR into a tool for social change

A simple button turns your virtual visit into real-world good.


Virtual reality is lauded as an empathy generator. The ability to transport viewers to a setting that would otherwise be inaccessible, or even unfathomable, lends a sense of poignancy to the medium. Over the last two years, journalistic stories and charitable causes have been translated into VR films to raise awareness. In particular, the United Nations Virtual Reality initiative has been using the medium as an advocacy tool for vulnerable communities across the world. And now with the recent launch of a mobile app that introduces a "take action" button for the viewers to engage with the social issues, UNVR is looking to convert compassion into action.

The app, led by Gabo Arora, the UN creative director who spearheads the organization's VR productions, will host experiences like Clouds Over Sidra, which places viewers alongside a 12-year-old girl in a Syrian refugee camp; Waves of Grace, which brings them into the world of an Ebola survivor in Liberia; and My Mother's Wing, which takes them to a home in Gaza, where a mother lost her two young sons in the bombing of the UNRWA school.

Virtual experiences about tragedies that are far removed from the everyday lives of most people outside the affected countries tend to evoke a powerful emotional response from the viewer. But as the hardware required to view these films continues to stay out of reach for the masses, the actual impact of the VR experiences has come into question.

A still from Waves of Grace. Photo credit: UNVR

While the effect isn't quantifiable yet, VR creators are starting to look for ways to facilitate change through grassroots efforts. At the UN, Arora has been leveraging the organization's network to bring VR experiences to as many people as possible. For Clouds Over Sidra, for instance, he partnered with UNICEF's streets program, Translating Empathy to Action, in which fundraisers took to the streets with Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR across 40 countries. And most recently, Arora has collaborated with Artscape, a Canadian organization, for The Sidra Project. With more than 500 screenings of the VR film at private homes, public spaces and classrooms across Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, the project is designed to aid the resettlement of refugees in Canada.

I caught up with Arora at the UN headquarters in New York to talk about the ways in which he plans to facilitate change in the real world with virtual reality.

Why does the United Nations need a VR app?

There's so much that's so abstract at the UN and in policymaking. I do think that's important, and I don't want to denigrate my colleagues because they sometimes go, "Oh, we're still writing reports." But this, [the VR initiative] highlights all the great work they do, and I've done that too. I know that without that work we don't really have anything to move forward, and so much of the UN's work is not really understood. But I think doing things like this gets people engaged with the UN in some ways.

Because I think what it does is, it shows the power of storytelling for impact. The power of storytelling in diplomacy and foreign affairs. Which I don't think has been able to happen until now. A lot of it is my work, but I am trying to now build capacity. We want to open up the app to third-party filmmakers to try to build these storytelling bits so that, yes, I have helped kickstart something but we create something that's sustainable and is more than just about me.

One of the more unique features of the UNVR app is the action button. How did that come about?

With the app, we make it so that when you finish watching the film, there's an action button on the app that leads to a menu of actions. Right now it takes you The Sidra Project [take action page]. Through this you will be able to donate money, get involved with organizations in Canada, donate your time or extra things lying around. If you want to teach English, want to mentor a family or you want to invite them for dinner. We're figuring out what this needs to be with leading experts, but the idea is to really tie [VR] to those actions and be able to measure it. The project was launched at the Toronto Film Festival [earlier in September]. There are 25 partners, including the US Consulate in Canada, and it is something that we are using as the first pilot to see how something like this could actually make a difference in the resettlement issue.

If it works well, we want to take it to Germany. When we started thinking about it in January [this year], the political climate was a certain way but now I think things have gotten to a point where anything we can do to make it better would be incredible. Right now we're using Clouds Over Sidra and it's for the refugee-resettlement issue, but it goes into a humanitarian fund. So it helps all of our crises.

You have four films on the UNVR app right now, and there's plenty more in the works. How do you go about finding these stories, what's the process for you?

We have offices in 135 countries and we have communications offices in each one. We have incredible relationships with people who are already doing video, doing their own version of storytelling. It's almost like having a built-in production house. For example, what's going on in Nigeria with Boko Haram: the families, the kids. I have to call the local offices to see if there is a particular story or if they have someone in mind? They're the ones that are going to help in giving me the access. Facilitating security and those relationships is an amazing advantage.

Beyond the films, you're taking your VR efforts straight to people's homes. Could you tell me about The Sidra Project and how that came about?

I was an arts and culture leader this year at Davos, where they showcased some of the VR work to the delegates. I met Tim Jones, who was Entrepreneur of the Year in 2015 for the Schwab Foundation, and is now [CEO] of an organization called Artscape in Toronto. He watched Clouds Over Sidra and said: "With all these refugees coming into Canada, what if we built some sort of program where refugees can kind of lead screenings and use VR as a kind of way to build understanding and empathy between host communities and refugees." Because there's increasing xenophobia and there were some hate crimes that were happening, so in a lot of ways, his idea was: If more and more people saw this film, they'd really understand where these people are coming from.

I thought that was really cool, and he also has an incredible network; he's a pioneer for using art for social change. So we put our heads together. We thought we would develop a project, almost like a social enterprise, so that it can actually fund itself, and it would target 10,000 Canadians with 500 screenings over a course of time.

Gabo Arora. Photo Credit: Ethan Scott

What about other visual media, like augmented reality, for instance. Have you tried building something around that?

I had an idea to do something with genocide survivors through augmented reality. What if you went to Auschwitz and you could get a survivor to kind of be the guide or to have other overlays on site? A lot of these things can really be powerful in that way. So I talked to Metavision [a San Francisco-based company with an augmented-reality headset] and then I did some demos but I didn't feel the technology was there. So that idea now has morphed into doing something in a concentration camp using photogrammetry.

You seem to be integrating all kinds of new technologies to build stories. But I wonder if you have any challenges introducing something like VR, given the bureaucratic framework of the UN?

Every day.

What were your biggest challenges?

Is this a Western rich person's technological toy? How does this relate to helping the most vulnerable? How do we scale this? How do we show impact? The app is the answer to all of that. Yes, look, we can get our stories out there, we can build the platform for filmmakers within the UN, we can have an action button that people can actually use to take action. To me, it's better, but it's always a rocky road, because it's something that is creative.

For instance, I want to have third-party content on the app that might be critical of a member-state. In theory, you're not allowed to do that. There are two schools of thought at the UN, and I take a very clear one. One is beholden to our member-states and what they stand for, but 60 of our member-states are not democratic and would kill homosexuals. That doesn't make sense to me. I believe it's the UN Charter that we should feel compelled to follow. It's the "We the People" part of it. I think the spirit of that document is what I'm trying to make the spirit of what the app is, which is open, inclusive, democratic, transparent. That doesn't mean that we're not going to curate and have some sort of closed ability to it, and then we'll have a content committee and we'll create something that will make it as fair as we can.

"I believe it's the UN Charter that we should feel compelled to follow...I think the spirit of that document is what I'm trying to make the spirit of what the app is, which is open, inclusive, democratic, transparent."

Obviously, it's such an unwieldy organization that it's impossible to get consensus and please everybody. We almost always just have to do something and then ask for forgiveness later, and then try to make it work and respond as best as we can without it falling into the same trap everything else does. I feel a great responsibility.

Part of me feels like, why don't I just move to L.A. and focus on that, just be 100 percent storyteller. But another part of me still feels I wouldn't have as much of an impact. And to me, fighting these little fights and going through all of that, mainstreaming it, not letting it die, changing the culture of storytelling in the UN, is something great.

What's next on the VR front?

Our next one is on the Nepal earthquake, but a year and a half later. Where are we now? We still have 3 million people living in temporary shelters. We don't have their houses built. I think showing that and figuring out: How we can accelerate on something that isn't this hot crisis now? These people are still forgotten in these rural areas. It's about a young girl who has to give up her dreams and start working to build back her house, can't be a doctor, lost her rooms, doesn't have a place to change. It really has a gender story to it, too.

It's the first time we can try to build empathy in something that people have kind of forgotten about and try to bring it up and get people to care is something I'm very excited about. It's also a music-video documentary. It really is about indigenous music and sounds of the area being used.

In the beginning, everyone was like "It's like Clouds Over Sidra." We're like, no, because it's going to have a different angle of the reconstruction, but the music video part is what is going to make it different. It's a little more avant-garde. There's less voice-over. But I think the more subtle you are in VR, the better it works. That's the power of the medium.

(The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)