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Virtual reality: Aid groups play with idea that it could prompt more to care – and give

Image from the virtual reality documentary Clouds Over Sidra, by Chris Milk for the U.N. (Credit:

Virtual reality videos that allow viewers to take an immersive tour of Syrian refugee camps or interact with Burundian refugees in Tanzania is the latest medium in a long list of videos and interactive documentaries that aim to evoke empathy for people suffering amid humanitarian causes. With the world facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, the challenge of persuading people across the world to dig deeper into their pockets to plug funding shortfalls at the U.N. is becoming more of a challenge.

Fundraisers who have begun to employ the technology are claiming early successes, others aren’t so sure that that this shiny new toy has the power in the long run to alter how people understand others’ suffering – and then be moved to act.

During the recent film and documentary festival Sheffield Doc/Fest, journalists, filmmakers, neuroscientists and psychologists looked at other measurements beyond funding impact. Panels mulled over whether virtual reality could be the ultimate empathy machine. They asked whether, as a medium, it is essentially any different from documentary forms that already exist.

While some panelists, such as Dan Edge, senior producer and commissioning editor at PBS Frontline, said that virtual reality documentaries “can put you in the thick of the event in a way that traditional docs can’t.” Others, like Nico Daswani at the World Economic Forum, argued that VR is not a silver bullet in creating empathy.

Documentaries, such as the U.N.’s Clouds Over Sidra, put you in the shoes of Sidra, a Syrian refugee living in Za’atari camp in Jordan. In the video you are virtually taken by her hand on a tour around the camp where she and 90,000 other refugees live. For eight minutes you are immersed in her reality, with the ability to turn your head round for a full 360-degree experience to view the internet café she visits to explore the world beyond the camp, or the bakery that provides bread for her and her fellow refugees.

Michael Goldfarb, communications director at Doctors Without Borders (MSF), marked this “growing trend towards interactive experience” as a tool that humanitarian agencies can use to promote awareness and support for causes. Like the U.N., Doctors Without Borders has been exploring how it can employ virtual reality in films such as We Had to Leave, which it has launched on its YouTube channel, as well as a traveling exhibit that feature VR called Forced From Home, which will be shown in public locations around New York in September.

However, despite Goldfarb’s initial positivity about the way that virtual reality offers “as close an experience as we can provide short of putting people on planes and transporting them to actual refugee camps,” the organization is not “under the illusion that it’s going to provide the real experience as it is.”

Virtual reality films like Clouds Over Sidra can be downloaded and viewed on smartphones by plugging into headsets like Oculus Rift, Samsung VR, at the more expensive end, as well as Google Cardboard, which costs as little as $15. It is generally thought that Google Cardboard is not as advanced as Oculus Rift. However, Marisol Grandon, head of creative content at the UK Department for International Development (DFID), still believes that it is “a brilliant way for people to understand the format.”

At the moment, beyond the tech community, not many people own VR headsets, which currently affects the ability to reach larger audiences. However, Kirsten Gutekunst, project manager for the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals Action Campaign hopes that the U.N. and other agencies can “reach a wider audience,” predicting that “in the next five years every household will have VR tech of some sort.”

The aim of films like these is to “imagine yourself in another person’s shoes that you had perhaps never thought of before,” said Gutekunst, with the ultimate aim of “guiding people towards wanting to take action in either sharing knowledge or wanting to actually do something like volunteering and donating money to people around the world who suffer the most.”

For DFID, using virtual reality is a way of showing up close how its funding “makes a material difference” to the lives of refugees and the poor, Grandon said.

Last March, Clouds Over Sidra was shown at the Third International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria. Participants at the high-profile event raised $3.8 billion for Syrian refugees for the U.N., exceeding the predicted $2.3 billion. Gutekunst said that the U.N. doesn’t want to attribute the gains to the film.

At other U.N. events where virtual reality videos have been shown, Christopher Fabian, the co-lead of UNICEF’s innovation unit, noted how he couldn’t “even count the number of times someone has taken off the headset and the goggles are filled with tears.” People were so affected by the film at this event that they donated “twice the normal rate.”

Despite the success of pledging events like this, some have doubts as to whether the technology has a unique capacity to it that traditional storytelling does not. In some ways virtual reality is no different from the media that we currently consume on refugees and humanitarian crises that have an explicit call to action. The story is essentially the same, but on a different, new medium, said Clint Beharry, director of design at the Harmony Institute, adding that, essentially “stories are the ultimate empathy machine.”

What virtual reality is trying to achieve is intrinsically the same challenge that other writers, documentary makers and humanitarian advocates are trying to do in an age when scenes of desperate and abject poverty across the world are beamed onto our laptop, our newspapers and our smartphones.

Beharry unravels this problem, arguing that, with the information overload we receive on crises happening on every corner of the globe, often there is an issue of “empathetic avoidance” as part of a fight or flight response: either you are compelled into action, or you are doubtful of the real impact that you can make as an individual.

Filmmakers, such as Daswani, who frequently show VR films to politicians and high-profile figures at events at Davos at the World Economic Forum, for example, often ask themselves whether the films they make lead to such avoidance: “How do people emerge out of this story? Is it so emotional that they are paralyzed? Or is there something about the way I’ve told the story that’s open-ended enough that they are going to be galvanized to do something about it?”

Examples of this frequently crop up. As stories of crisis in Sudan, Ethiopia or Syria come in and out of our collective and individual consciousness at various moments, so too does the ebb and flow of donations for any given cause. Last year the world unfortunately became familiar with a Syrian child refugee called Aylan Kurdi, whose dead body washed up on the shores of Bodrum in Turkey went front page on many British and international newspapers.

For Goldfarb of MSF, a film’s ability to create empathy is just as, if not, more important than the funds that films raise, adding that he does not “have the conceit that a virtual reality film is going to achieve what the photograph did not achieve.”

Others questioned whether empathy is an entry point into altruism and action to begin with. For Maria Panagiotidi, research psychologist at Arctic Shores, “some people are more empathetic than others by default,” adding that “when you are trying to create a machine to make people more human, we have to look at the fact that some people are not all that human to begin with.”

This reveals that, like most things, empathy is a sliding scale, and also that it is not a standalone element that persuades individuals to act. Though Angela Merkel and David Cameron face similar political pressures as leaders in accepting refugees, their responses to the crisis have been different, or indifferent, as with the case of other European leaders.

Similarly, while some may see scenes of famine, poverty and drought in Ethiopia and are compelled to act or to donate, some may not be moved at all. Panagiotidi adds to this point, stating that in studies she had conducted, “even when you do produce empathy, you don’t actually change people’s behavior.”

Sheffield Docs/Fest invited Humanosphere to attend the Sheffield Docs/Fest Alternate Realities Summit in Sheffield, U.K., and provided conference fees and travel expenses.


About Author

Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at