Oct 18, 2018 - Technology

Humanitarians turn to virtual reality so you can't avert your gaze

A seated man wearing a virtual reality headset

Christoph Hanger of the International Committee of the Red Cross prepares a virtual reality headset. Photo: Kaveh Waddell/Axios

A haunting choose-your-own-adventure, set in a modest Syrian home and rendered in immersive virtual reality, is the latest product from a humanitarian organization desperate to remind the world of the harms of urban warfare.

Why it matters: Syria’s seven-year-long civil war has killed roughly half a million civilians, and it’s just one of many ongoing conflicts that are lost in the wash of daily headlines. With new storytelling formats, aid organizations hope to ignite empathy in faraway viewers — and perhaps stoke some generosity.

The details: The new VR experience comes from the International Committee of the Red Cross, a relief organization that works in war zones. It was funded by a $200,000 grant from Google, the company behind the Daydream VR platform the experience is built for.

The story is short — it takes only minutes to play through — but it stayed with me long after I removed a clunky white VR headset last week. The potentially upsetting experience is described here. If you’d rather see it yourself, it’s available for iOS and Android, but requires a Google Cardboard headset.

  • The viewer is in the center of a small family room at night. A father prepares tea on a stove while a mother sits reading with two daughters on the ground. Faint gunfire and explosions are heard outside.
  • All of a sudden, as the father passes in front of a window, he's shot through the shoulder. He falls to the ground, shirt blooming red, as his family gathers panicked around him. The action stops and the viewer is presented with a choice: run or hide.
  • Neither ends well. Choose to hide, as I did first, and gunmen soon burst into the house and point large assault rifles at the injured man, who has not yet crawled into the cupboard.
  • Having failed, the viewer can rewind and choose the alternative. In it, the family runs out of the house through the kitchen. Gunfire rings out and the two daughters return alone to huddle in the corner of the room.

"You're part of the decision-making process, but it doesn't matter what you do," says Christoph Hanger, a spokesperson for the ICRC. "There is no choice that's going to lead you in a good direction."

  • The organization's message: "When you have conflict, choices get reduced, and that strips dignity away from people."
  • The world inside the viewer drew me in so quickly that within seconds of starting the film, I kicked over a bottle of water I’d just placed on the ground.
  • The United Nations has been using VR for storytelling since 2015, but the ICRC says this film is the first interactive experience from a humanitarian organization.

What’s next: The ICRC will show the interactive film to people on the street in the U.S. and Europe to gauge its impact. They will also use it as an advocacy and fundraising tool, with plans to show it to U.K. parliamentarians to prod for action and donations.

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