Last year, the United Nations added a new tool to its fundraising arsenal: virtual reality. With the help of studio Vrse.works, it released Clouds Over Sidra, a mini-documentary following a 12-year-old Syrian refugee. Since then, it’s been increasingly accepted that VR can boost philanthropy by connecting viewers more deeply to a subject — that, as a member of Vrse.works put it, a headset is "the ultimate empathy machine."
There’s some early evidence to bear this out. A 2015 fundraising conference where Clouds Over Sidra was shown ended up raising $3.8 billion, over 70 percent more than projected. A UNICEF fundraising program found that one in six people pledged donations after watching the video, twice the normal rate. But now, the UN is hoping to better understand what exactly VR-inspired empathy can do. At the Toronto International Film Festival last week, it launched an app specifically for virtual reality films, alongside an initiative that urges Canadians to help Syrian refugees through donations and volunteer work.
"When Clouds over Sidra came out, and the other films, we always thought they were moving people," says UN creative director Gabo Arora. "We just could never really measure out what formally drives people to action." While most of the UNVR app is devoted to 360-degree and VR video, there’s also a "take action" button that leads users to the Sidra Project, a collaboration between the UN and Toronto-based nonprofit Artscape. There, they can follow links to do things like sponsor a refugee family, volunteer to help new arrivals acclimate to Canada, or fund a screening of Clouds Over Sidra.
"We always thought they were moving people, and we just could never really measure out what formally drives people to action."
For now, there are four experiences on UNVR, which is currently available on Android, iOS, and Gear VR. They include Clouds Over Sidra and a newly released piece called Beyond the Lake, about refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Three more are set for release by the end of the year, and the UN plans to commission a steady stream of new material. Arora says it’s also in talks with Samsung to provide regional UN offices with affordable 360-degree cameras, which local citizens could use to make their own films. "We're featuring stories of people that are most vulnerable" in UNVR already, he says. "It would be great to eventually develop that capacity to help them make content and tell their own stories," which would also appear in the app.
All these plans are complicated, however, by the fact that no one is sure how well VR will transition from a novelty format to a robust medium in its own right. Could Clouds Over Sidra be making a stronger impression simply because it’s more unusual than an ordinary YouTube video, not inherently more moving?
Arora acknowledges that non-governmental organizations might have gotten caught in an "empathy arms race," turning out experience after experience meant to tug at our heartstrings. If the UN had simply made an ad in VR, he says, it probably wouldn’t have had much emotional impact. But he ultimately believes that VR, at least when it’s crafted with real artistry, has staying power. It "has a different effect on us scientifically and biologically, so it's hard to say that we would just get used to it," he says — referring to the way that virtual reality is meant to convince users that their physical body is in a space. "I think it would always have that kind of effect on us."