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Virtual empathy: Connecting with refugees in 360˚

The first refugee crisis I remember was the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. I was 10. I didn’t really understand it; I just remember countless images on television and in the newspapers of displaced families, and starving children. Of course Rwanda wasn’t the first refugee crisis, and it won’t be the last.

Today’s refugee crisis begins in Syria. I understand the background a little more, but can’t begin to understand how those affected really feel. This is something Visualise and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are trying to address with the help of today’s new media format and latest tech buzzwords, Virtual Reality and 360˚ immersive video. “MSF approached us because they wanted to create an immersive travelling road show,” Henry Stuart, CEO and Co-Founder at Visualise, tells me.

Forced From Home is a series of five 360˚ videos for Samsung Gear VR, 360˚ video for Igloo Dome, YouTube 360 and Facebook 360 trailers produced by Visualise for MSF-US which form the basis of a US tour starting in September. “The goal behind this campaign is to offer the public a unique perspective into why people flee their homes, what the search for safety is like, and the many dangers and health risks. By producing these immersive films, MSF hopes to give displaced people a voice and create a humanising connection with viewers.”

Over the course of seven months the Visualise team travelled to refugee camps in Greece, Tanzania, Iraq, Lebanon and Mexico to meet MSF field workers and refugees to hear their stories. “The idea behind these films is to really place the viewer inside the scenes, where it feels like the refugee or MSF field worker is talking directly with you, providing some context to the social and political reasons why people are forced to flee their homes and the challenges of living in camps,” Stuart explains.

Taking nearly a year from the initial conversations to the finished product, the project faced some challenges – not all technical. “One of the biggest challenges in the production was getting to remote locations. For example, to reach Nduta camp in Tanzania from London took nearly four days of travel,” Stuart recounts. “We were also filming interviews and scenes that would be projected into the Igloo Dome and viewable on the Samsung Gear VR headset. These platforms have different aspect ratios, so when setting up a scene, considerations as to how it would work within the different environments was of paramount importance.”

Filming for 360˚ video is quite different to traditional filmmaking, particularly with this project since the purpose is to create a deeper connection between viewer and subject. Stuart describes how this was done “by having fewer edits, [and a] simple composition of shots, with action taking place in front of the viewer”.

Of course there are advantages as well: “The primary benefit is immersion and emotional connection. The bulk of the content centres around the stories of three refugees from different parts of the world. We wanted to emphasise the connection between you and the other person, so we got each refugee to maintain eye contact with the camera during the interview. This made each viewer feel as though they were being spoken to, and greatly adds to your sense of being there in the camps with them. This feeling of connection is not possible with traditional video.”

And as Stuart shares with me, this project is so important, not just because of what it’s trying to say, but how it’s saying it: “It’s a project which is using VR to bring a sense of understanding and empathy about people who are less privileged. It shows the power of VR as a medium of connection between people. This kind of connection was not possible before VR, and it shows the potential for positive impact on a global scale.”

So Virtual Reality, 360˚ video, Augmented Reality… they’re the technology of the moment in many respects, especially thanks to the popularity of new apps like Pokémon Go (even if not everyone’s a fan). But what’s the difference between them? Stuart explains: “360, as in 360 video, is non-interactive video which can be viewed on a VR headset. 360 video can still generate a sense of immersion, but because it is video, you can’t change or interact with anything you’re seeing. Immersive technology is split into three categories. Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality, and Augmented Reality. Augmented Reality is when information about your environment is overlaid on top (e.g., a big 3D arrow pointing you to your destination). Mixed reality is when things from a different reality become part of your regular reality. (e.g., Star Wars character standing in your living room). Virtual Reality is when your entire reality is taken over by a virtual one (e.g., in VR you aren’t aware of your regular environment, but are fully immersed in another one).”

But while the popularity of these technologies is growing, Stuart thinks it’s likely to be a decade before VR, AR, and MR become mainstream, reasoning that a single, lightweight and ergonomic headset that can handle VR, AR and MR is needed before mass adoption will occur. But once that happens, the technologies will revolutionise our lives, enabling us to experience things that aren’t currently possible; “AR/VR/MR together represent the next stage of evolution in information technology, after personal computers, and mobile devices. People are already making the argument that AR will be bigger than VR, or that MR will be bigger than both, but that is missing the point. All three of these technologies are part of the same thing, and will each fit into different aspects of society.”

And while Stuart believes the entertainment industry will see the biggest boost initially, “immersive technologies will impact every aspect of life, much in the same way the PC and mobile device has. We can’t yet predict how.”

 

Also read:

Interview with Henry Stuart: 2018 will be the year of VR

Rant: VR ‘shaming’ hits the wrong target

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Kate Hoy

Kate Hoy is Associate Editor at IDG Connect

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