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One of the greatest difficulties in driving change in humanitarian contexts is that development challenges are so far removed from most people’s daily lives. As a response, the United Nations Virtual Reality (UNVR) series uses immersive storytelling to inspire greater empathy and understanding around today’s major humanitarian challenges.

Bringing humanitarian challenges to the forefront

UNVR forms part of a much wider movement designed to raise awareness around the hardship that vulnerable communities around the world experience every day, particularly in the context of wars, mass migration and increasing climate change. Between 2015 and 2017, the initiative, led by the UN SDG Action Campaign, produced ten VR short movies, each telling the story of war victims or refugees.

One of those films is Cloud over Sidra, a nine-minute VR clip that was filmed in 2014 using the latest technology in VR and 360° filming. The main protagonist is 12-year-old Sidra, one of the many children living in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan - a camp still home to almost 80,000 Syrian refugees. Sidra takes the viewer around the camp, showing them her home and her school. Clouds over Sidra was created to encourage donations towards Syrian refugees and kickstart informed discussions between policymakers and the general public alike, making that particular development challenge much more salient.

The power and challenges of an empathy machine

In recent years, because of the power of full visual immersion, VR has been dubbed the ‘empathy machine’. While this is contested by some, there is a consensus around the new technology’s ability to make any topic, even complicated ones, more vivid and tangible. When Clouds over Sidra was released in January 2015 at the Davos World Economic Forum, the emotional impact of the movie on high level participants was palpable. The movie’s resonance was huge, it was translated into more than ten languages and was widely viewed and shared on social media.

The UNVR series depicts the way in which simulation methods such as VR and immersion have a unique ability to increase awareness, bringing worthwhile issues to the front of the policy agenda.

However, as with all simulations, an element of simplification of the problem is required, which means compromises. In the case of Clouds over Sidra, the short and poignant experience of standing in a refugee camp might not necessarily do justice to some of the long-term physical and mental strains associated with living in a refugee camp. Because after all, once the viewer is done watching, they can always remove their headset and go back to their normal lives.

Ultimately, though, the UNVR series depicts the way in which simulation methods such as VR and immersion have a unique ability to increase awareness, bringing worthwhile issues to the front of the policy agenda. In the words of Clouds over Sidra’s Director, Gabo Arora: “I want to influence decision makers, first and foremost”.

Image: Experiencing the UNVR short film ‘Clouds over Sidra’. DFID photo collection via Flickr.