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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.

Go deeper

CDC looks at tougher testing rules for international travelers

Travelers with their luggage arrive at a COVID-19 testing location at the airport in Los Angeles, Calif., on Nov. 23, 2021. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday night that it is working to impose stricter testing requirements for international travelers due to the spread of the new Omicron variant.

The big picture: The new rules would require all international travelers, regardless of vaccination status, to show a negative test taken a day before their flight to the U.S. Currently, the CDC says fully vaccinated travelers are allowed to show a test taken no more than three days before their departure, AP reports.

Republicans threaten to shut down government over vaccine mandates

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in the Capitol in November 2020. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Conservative Republicans in the House and Senate are planning to force a government shutdown Friday to deny funding needed to enforce the Biden administration's vaccine mandates on the private sector, according to Politico.

Why it matters: Congress has until the end of the week to pass a stopgap measure to extend funding into 2022, though objection from a small group of Republicans could shut down the government.

Electric car prices could go up before they come down

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The secret to affordable electric vehicles is cheaper batteries. But after years of falling prices, battery costs are now headed in the wrong direction.

Why it matters: Costlier batteries could drive up the price of electric vehicles — threatening the auto industry's transition away from fossil fuels, and, in turn, society's fight against climate change.

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