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Virtual Reality, Real Virtues

Virtual Reality, Real Virtues

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)[1] are identified by many as the new frontier of innovative campaigning.

The viewing equipment is slowly becoming widely accessible technically and the offer in VR/AR products is becoming diverse enough to start considering it as a mainstream media.

It has specific added value and comparative advantage in that it offers an experience that is:

  • Immersive – users wearing a headset are completely immersed in the content, meaning fewer distractions and more attention to the message. No more texting on whatsapp while watching a video on youtube!
  • Impactful – the intensity of a VR/AR experience is greater than traditional media, generating strong emotions in its users, which are linked to real behavior change.
  • Memorable – our brains are built to remember events linked to locations, this means that VR/AR experiences have a longer trace in the audience’s memory.
  • Novel – with high media and public interest in VR/AR early adopters can benefit from favorable media exposure.

The fundraising era

Naturally, non-profits have been engaging in VR/AR experiments over the past 2 years, mainly for fundraising purposes, with some lessons already beginning to emerge.

UNICEF produced « Clouds Over Sidra », a VR film about children in refugee camps in Jordan. Clouds Over Sidra was translated into 12 languages and tested for fundraising in 22 countries. “We’re trying to apply fundraising methodology to it, testing in different spaces, making sure to apply the rigor of the usual fundraising to this new channel” said Mary Lynn Lalonde, global fundraising content manager as reported by the nonprofittimes.

Charity:Water had 400 men and women in tuxedos and gowns « virtravel » to a small village in Ethiopia for an annual black-tie fundraising banquet.

Similarly, the education nonprofit Pencils of Promise created a buzz last year when it transported a room of its wealthiest donors from a Wall Street gala to a school house in rural Ghana. The organization not only manufactured a 16-foot-wide replica classroom for donors to walk through, but also outfitted them with virtual reality goggles that showed a two-minute video placing their mind in the classroom as well.

The organization raised more than $2 million that night, and the video has reached 8 million people since then. Charity: water went on to set up 16 virtual reality stations in a tourist public garden in Manhattan during the month of August.

VR is also increasingly used to report on donations’ use, an essential part of any fundraising strategy, as VR can take donors directly to the location where their money is being used, as Unicef reports. In 2015, former President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea went to East Africa with their Clinton Global Initiative organization and captured the activities in VR making them into a video that was seen by over 1 million people.

Tom’s shoes, a company-charity that donates shoes to children in need, has developed a series of VR films that illustrate the impact of the donations.


Going beyond fundraising

The costs involved in producing and distributing VR/AR products are for the moment keeping them closely tied to ROI, hence mainly for fundraising. Few initiatives have been developed that use virtual technology for other purposes, like advocacy or political campaigning.

But things are slowly changing and non-profits are increasingly starting to see the potential of VR/AR to get people to become more deeply involved.

Last year, Sierra Club, the Environmental Media Association (EMA), and RYOT launched the first-ever virtual reality climate change PSA, narrated by Oscar Winner Jared Leto. The video catapults viewers into the heart of the Arctic to explore frontline communities, melting glaciers, and see the effects of climate change using new technology, in a way never experienced before.


PETA’s VR app allows people to experience firsthand what it’s like to be a chicken. Viewers can flap your wings, communicate with other chickens, take dust baths, and engage in other natural chicken behavior. The project intends to use the empathy that VR allows, to drive people to go vegan.

The project has been documented in the short video below


Planned Parenthood’s «Across The Line» aims to provide a direct experience to viewers of what it’s like to cross a phalanx of protestors to get to one of its clinics, as detailed in the project’s video.


Amnesty International UK launched its “Fear of the Sky” project as sentiments toward Syrian refugees in Europe were turning sour. The project places viewers on the bombed-out streets of Aleppo as a civilian activist explains the dangers faced by those for whom this is their actual reality.


The medical research nonprofit Alzheimer’s Research UK developed this virtual reality experience, taking viewers through the shopping experience of a person suffering from dementia.


The National Autistic Society created a VR video to immerse the viewer in the experience of Autistic people. The film contains flashing lights, bright colours and loud, sudden noises, as experienced by Autistic people.


In the summer of 2016, Greenpeace launched “A Journey to the Arctic”. The project was the organization’s first virtual reality campaign about the rapid and devastating impact of climate change in the Arctic.


The potential of VR/AR for non-profits has obviously not gone unnoticed by the handful of companies fighting for market shares and technological leadership.

Oculus, the Facebook-owned maker of virtual reality headsets, debuted a “VR for Good” program in 2016 that paired 9 nonprofits with filmmakers and provided the teams with funding to create virtual reality experiences that were presented at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017.


[box] Cardboard VR glasses are increasingly becoming popular handouts. McDonalds and the New York Times have pioneered this in 2016. Unicef has offered cardboard VR viewers in return for donations. As cardboard VR viewers turn out to be reasonably cheap to produce (see Google’s guidelines to in-house fabrication), they might quickly be added to the list of non-profit’s regular branded for-sale items or giveaways.


Sexual and gender minorities enter the stage

As for LGBTIQ issues, the innovative nature of AR/VR has made it so far most appealing to the aRtivist circles.

Perry Voulgaris, Principal at a consulting firm specializing in innovative technology, notes that « VR’s unique individualized experience creates a sense of perspective like no other medium. Combined with an engaging user experience, VR becomes a powerful story telling tool! Stories from our community, about our community, to be accessed, exprienced and shared… »

In August 2014, Daniel Ashley Pierce’s family verbally and physically accosted him before kicking him out of the house because they disapproved of his sexuality. Journalist Nonny de la Peña and her team created an emotionally explosive animated interactive VR experience built directly around audio that Daniel recorded during that encounter. Out of Exile: Daniel’s Story puts the viewer’s body into the middle of the action, opening up an emotionally powerful avenue of empathy to Daniel’s experience.

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 10.35.02


The Virtual Drag project is a virtual reality encounter with 3d scans of drag queens & kings in fantasy environments. While mainly of artistic nature, the project provides insights into what advocacy focused initiatives could get inspired by.


In the wake of the Orlando shooting, the Inspiration Orlando Mural Project aims to embrace healing through public art and educational initiatives, highlighting the power of love, inclusion and unit. The project is developing an AR/VR component that will allow access to the artwork and testimonies of survivors in 360°


Google’s #prideforeveryone project aims at shooting several prides in 360° VR so as to bring the experience of marching to people who can’t.

The potential for the use of AR/VR is enormous: From the journey of a homeless youth to the celebrations of a flashmob, the options are infinite for creating films that can arouse the empathy our campaigns seek to induce.

Sign of this potential, the UK-based CrossOver, which aims to develop the production of crossmedia content, has launched a specific training that aims to increase the visibility of LGBTQ characters and issues in digital and interactive media.

2018 Innovation for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia

VeeR VR, one of the biggest virtual reality/360 content platforms, has put together some interesting social experiments with LGBTQ folks. Based in Beijing, the platform collaborated with the Beijing LGBT Center on May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, to produce a couple videos to test if people would support the community.

The first one, titled “Free Hug in Beijing,” shows a blindfolded young woman wearing a shirt that says “I am a homosexual” in Chinese. During the duration of the VR video, she holds her arms out and numerous people come up and hug her to show support. It’s really simple and really sweet.

Because of the 360 aspect, I watched the video twice. First, I watched it facing the blindfolded woman to see her reaction to every hug. Second, I watched it from her perspective and saw the people walk by as well as the expressions of the people who were walking up to hug her. It was cool to see a new angle on these social experiment videos — something that’s only possible through VR.

The second video, titled “Can You Take a Photo of Us?” shows two men wearing the same “I am a homosexual” shirts. Bystanders would walk up and take a picture of the pair with their sign. As the video goes on, people start joining in on the picture rather than just using their camera.

Chinese activists have worked hard to change China’s cultural attitude towards LGBTQ people and it’s awesome that they can utilize this new technology to document those efforts and their successes.

Lessons learned

In their experiments on the use of VR, Greenpeace teams have captured some learning :

  • VR/AR facilitates empathy. The « Ecotourism 2.0. » used in face-to-face street marketing has shown very good results. But the technology can also isolate or enrage; the context, framing, and work is what makes the difference. The campaigner, the human handing the viewer the VR/AR goggles, needs to frame the story and give the user a hook integral to the piece.
  • VR/AR needs to be experienced in a quiet relaxed setting, like the lobby of a cinema or a booth within a festival.
  • This increased empathy facilitates behavior change but it does this most effectively when the VR/AR creates interaction opportunities with the viewer
  • Positive emotions tend to create more powerful experiences. So in VR/AR campaigning it is even more important than in other formats to focus on the positive results of acting on a problem, rather than on the problem itself.

All the experiments insist on the potential of VR/AR to expand the process of storytelling. Some observers think that it could even lead to question the basic theories behind storytelling, bringing new elements to what constitutes a story and how it should be told. Some even warn of the emotional load of VR/AR and urge non-profits to adopt a code of conduct in VR/AR production.

Non-profits are also increasingly aware that using the full potential of VR/AR requires them to carefully study how specific elements, like computer-animated features, contribute to creating empathy or not. This is a domain that is still very much under-researched. To help bridge this knowledge gap, the Virtual Human Interaction Lab of Stanford University is conducting research into VR/AR’s potential for campaigning. The lab seeks to analyze behavior change in real life of some VR projects such as this one, which aims at reducing racism by using immersive virtual reality to create a “virtual shoes” experience through which a participant can viscerally embody an avatar who encounters various forms of racism.

Research like this might also open up the interest of organisations working with sexual and gender minorities to expand the use of VR in their programs, especially when working on helping victims cope with trauma, a direction that the University of Central Florida explored after the Orlando shooting.

The creative and innovative nature of VR/AR makes it a powerful instrument for organisations aiming at changing social paradigms. Taking people into VR journeys not only gets them to experience “intimately” the things they already know. It facilitates the contact with new information, or behaviors, making absorption all the easier as the setup does not let you avoid the information by allowing your attention to be distracted.


The journey of VR/AR in public campaigning is only starting and it will be interesting to observe future trends in this.

The VR/AR experience needs equipment that few people have yet at home, making it necessary to stop at a charity booth, a store, etc.. For the moment, the sheer experience of VR/AR is still enough to attract people and “lure” them to the set up. Once home equipment generalizes and the VR/AR offer expands, people will likely quickly become more blasé and it will be increasingly harder to draw people, making the heavy investment in video development a risky business. “As the wow factor of virtual reality starts to wear off, what’s going to make more impactful, longer lasting experiences, are the ones that have figured out how to tell interesting and well-crafted stories » said Brad Lichtenstein, president of Milwaukee-based 371 Productions

To anticipate VR/AR fatigue, innovative non-profits are already looking into its future formats. Greenpeace is looking into taking the experience a step further and is developing multi-sensory viewing pods that will complement the VR/AR film to create an immersive experience incorporating sounds, imagery, motion, smell and touch, in order to even further increase the empathy potential.

And while VR/AR will doubtless play an increasing role, its future will also depend on how it connects with the other communications tools that are currently in use. As this article shows, VR videos like the one of the National Autistic Society obviously need to be carefully crafted within a wider strategy involving other more conventional media.

As Greenpeace puts it « VR/AR is a new way of telling stories but using it effectively requires a creative coupling with all the old tools campaigners have been honing for decades. Finding that balance remains the challenge. »

And while VR/AR creates a lot of opportunities, it also has drawbacks.

VR/AR requires high budgets, which makes it difficult for smaller non-profits to access.

Hoffman, of See3, estimates that a decent conventional video might cost $25,000 to produce but a decent VR film would be in excess of $100,000. “If you have less than $100,000, there’s not a lot you’re going to do with this,” he said.

The accelerated pace will also mean the costs will drop, which will be vital to making VR more accessible. Nonprofits dabbling in VR video at the moment are limited to those at the cutting edge and/or those with deep pockets, which is bound to increase the dominance of the bigger structures and thereby contribute to reduce diversity of expressions. Minority and poorer voices within the charity sector and social struggles are likely to be even more marginalized, at least until the VR/AR process democratizes. But by then it might have lost most of the potential that its innovative nature currently holds.



[1]The difference between AR and VR is subtle, but significant. VR takes users inside a completely different world, while AR integrates users’ current surroundings into a virtual experience, like Pokemon Go, for example.