Many individuals have difficulty relating to humanitarian crises in other regions of the world, much less feel empathy and choose to take action. An increasing number of humanitarian and development organizations have recently turned to virtual reality. With the help of the VR goggles and enhanced footage from areas with humanitarian crises, people can now get a better sense of the devastation brought on by things like poverty, war, or natural disasters.
Virtual Reality, as a social concept of created immersive experience, has a long history. John Carmack, CTO of VR tech company Oculus, touts the power of the current technology to invoke a sense of presence, the feeling of being in another place or world. Many in the tech industry are striving to popularize consumer VR, but the future of the technology is still uncertain. We hope to be able to evaluate the impact of VR media on empathy through a test pilot project, public exhibition, and gathering and analyzing audience perception data.
There is currently little completed research on how VR media affects empathy. However, some believe there may be some impact on public perception of humanitarian issues, as well as have actual national and international level policy impacts. Piers Robinson developed a policy-media interaction model that suggested when there is both policy uncertainty and great media coverage, especially of an ongoing tragedy, media can influence policy decisions. However, if there is pre-existing policy certainty, media has little room to influence decision-making. At the same time, the constant exposure of disasters and suffering in mainstream media has consistently faced harsh criticism, for fear of stereotyping populations and desensitizing audiences.
Projects launched by news outlets, like RYOT (part of the Huffington Post), and nongovernmental organizations in recent years have demonstrated the technology’s potential to tell real-life stories in more compelling ways. Now, many nonprofit organizations are taking that one step further by using virtual reality to build awareness and solicit donations.
Amnesty International UK recently tested this concept with their Fear of the Sky experience. For a week, the organization used virtual reality to transport people on the sidewalk in London to the streets of bombed out Aleppo, Syria. Amnesty reported that there had been "a strong and often emotional response from the public and a 16% increase in people signing up to direct debit donations toward Amnesty’s human rights work.”
Additionally, UNICEF has been extensively testing their VR film, Clouds Over Sidra, about a Syrian refugee in Jordan, to measure the effectiveness of VR as a fundraising tool for organizations. The initial results show the impact of VR has increased propensity to stop and engage, increased inclination to donate after engagement, increased average donation value, and enabled access to better fundraising locations and venues. In New Zealand, one in six people donated to Unicef New Zealand after watching the film which is twice the normal rate of support usually secured on the street. After a screening for donors as part of a fundraising conference in Kuwait, the film helped raise $3.8 billion—almost twice what was projected. In all cases where the film has been shown, UNICEF has received an increase in sign ups from people who have seen the video, often doubling the rate compared with traditional face-to-face methods.
The intimacy of VR gives it the potential to make you understand an unfamiliar person or situation a lot more than typical media - it more directly humanizes the suffering of others. As Chris Milk, the producer of Clouds Over Sidra explains, “what we care about are the people who are local to us, and virtual reality can take anyone in any place and make them feel local to you.”