My Mother's Wing
The UN explores virtual reality with "My Mother's Wing," showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. Gabo Arora

UN Uses Virtual Reality to Raise Awareness and Money

Apr 18, 2016

The United Nations has embraced virtual reality as a new way to raise awareness about the plights of human beings around the world. The UN has created a trio of short VR films with Vrse.works: Clouds Over Sidra, Waves of Grace, and My Mother’s Wing.

My Mother’s Wing follows a Palestinian mother who lost two young sons in a school shelled by Israel during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. The short film is being featured today at the Tribeca Film Festival.

UN senior adviser Gabo Arora, who created the three films with Vrse.works, says he previously explored these types of stories through conventional video. But virtual reality adds another level of immersion to the storytelling.

“The leap into virtual reality was really a constellation of factors coming together to bring this technology to help sensitize people to the challenges we work with throughout the world,” Arora says. “In some ways it's a revolution for us; in other ways, it's just a way to drive impact in new and innovative ways.”

Arora says virtual reality can help convey the complexity of many important stories around the world.

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“We have limited means and limited resources to do so, so we choose to prioritize pressing issues that have some sense of urgency and an important notion of time and place,” Arora says.

He points to Clouds Over Sidra as an example of showing an intimate picture of an overwhelming situation.

“By concentrating on the story of one girl in the overwhelming context of the crisis in Syria and neighboring countries, we are able to tell a compelling story that is meaningful to viewers at a time when they are already focused on the broader issue in the news,” Arora says.

Waves of Grace explores a Liberian woman's post-Ebola quest to help others recover from the virus.

In addition to the Tribeca Film Festival, these three VR films have been shown at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, as well as the World Economic Forum in Davos and Dalian, China. Beyond reaching thousands of decision-makers directly through VR, the UN has also incorporated the very basic Google Cardboard VR technology into fundraising.

“We have equipped UNICEF street fundraisers (the ones that carry clipboards and speak to potential donors on the street) in 40 countries with inexpensive headsets to show an abbreviated, two-minute version of the film to potential donors on the street,” Arora says.

Internal data shows that the rate of donation when people have seen the films increases to 1 in 6 from 1 in 12, effectively doubling the rate of people who take action. On top of that, Arora says average donations have gone up by 10%, which means that not only are people giving more often but they are giving more.

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“One of the things I hear a lot after someone has watched the film is that how powerful eye contact is,” Arora says. “When you look someone in the eye in virtual reality, you feel like you are connecting in a way that you do not in film. Unlike in film and video, you can't look away.”

According to research firm Greenlight VR, mobile VR headsets are expected to increase from 1 million in 2016 to 122 million by 2025, while tethered VR headsets are forecast to grow from 1 million in 2016 to 13.6 million by 2025. Samsung launched Gear VR last fall, Facebook launched Oculus Rift in March, and HTC released Vive in April. Sony ships PlayStation VR this October.

“As VR becomes more prevalent in other parts of life, be it in gaming, entertainment, or educational uses, we can have more impact with more people through our films,” Arora says. “Since our films are available for free download on Vrse's iPhone and Android apps, we can get our films into the hands of each and every VR headset user. The immersiveness of the experience depends a lot on the sophistication of the headset, but we aim for a wide impact and are excited about the increased availability of devices.”

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