By Christopher Szymczak, VR lead, UNICEF Office of Innovation

When, in 1896, The Lumière Brothers staged the first public showing of the “Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat Station,” people ran in panic convinced that the locomotive was coming right at them (or so the legend holds). We don’t know if this experience immediately raised awareness among audiences to pay special attention around train platforms. We do know, however, that the public collectively participated in a birth of a medium which in its many future iterations has allowed us to experience the Tiananmen Man, Discovery Channel, and long distance learning. Any technology that provides access to information, education, opportunity, and choice is good technology. Virtual Reality (VR) and AR (Augmented Reality) are only the latest displays of what is an endless exercise in human curiosity. The humanitarian sector, as any other, should make the most of these technologies to achieve its goals.

It seems that today the only area comparable in its pace of growth to VR is the number of new Pokémon GO users. The recent phenomenon has propelled AR into the mainstream lexicon and it was a Pikachu, not the secretive Fort Lauderdale startup that showed the general public what the magic leap is. The race between Virtual Reality, a technology that puts users inside virtual worlds and immerses them, and Augmented Reality, a technology that puts virtual things into users’ real worlds, is now head to head.

Virtous Reality

At UNICEF and throughout the international development community we have been carefully exploring opportunities offered by VR and AR to determine where is there a place for these technologies to strengthen our work. For us it started with a story – as it often does. It is a story of Sidra, a charming 12-year old girl who lives in The Zaatari Refugee Camp, home to an estimated 80,000 Syrians fleeing violence and war. In the VR film, Sidra leads viewers through her daily life to experience eating, sleeping, learning and playing in the vast desert city of tents. She guides us through environments most viewers will not see in their lifetime. Clouds Over Sidra resonated deeply with viewers, as did the VR productions that followed: Waves of Grace, about an Ebola survivor from Liberia, and My Mother’s Wings, about a mother who lost her two children in Gaza. The value in bringing these stories to life is undeniable and goes far beyond a significant rise in fundraising. By immersing the viewer into a world they would otherwise be unlikely to experience, we share with existing donors where their money goes, and for potential donors, where it is still very much needed.

Storytelling is a natural start for how we use VR & AR, but these new interactive technologies can go well beyond telling a story and building empathy amongst audiences. They have huge potential to help organisations like UNICEF build capacity by using VR and AR as a way to train community health workers or teachers who implement programmes worldwide. Imagine being able to teach a subject, create modular learning environments, and take people inside a challenging situation they could have never experienced before. This makes for yet another magic leap: from a moving experience to a powerful tool.

To take it even one step further, think about what could be when groups of people from different corners of the world access the same environment at the same time through their headsets to come together to solve a problem, test a theory, or paint on a canvas. As our world grows more and more divided and polarized, creating collaborative experiences that transcend differences seems especially enticing.

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But new technology is not a magic bullet. While the tech industry will keep adding new layers of technological marvels to VR and AR, we on our end will monitor these technologies for their main challenges, and presently, that is a challenge of access. The cost of hardware and connectivity are two factors that enormously limit point of entry for local content creators, technologists, and the international development community. And we simply shouldn’t agree on building walls around tools that have the ability to transcend them. If we can continue to break down barriers to access, and incorporate the boundless curiosity that at least matches that of the children who we try to serve, we may actually get a tad closer to the virtuous reality that we so long for.


Recently UNICEF moderated a discussion around how VR & AR can make the real world a better place. This was part of UNICEF’s ‘Tech4Good’ series, which takes place in San Francisco and brings together leaders in the technology, innovation and international development space in an attempt to assess how Silicon Valley and the international aid sector can work together with new approaches to tackle some of the world’s most complex challenges. The panelists for the ‘Virtuous Reality’ event included representatives from Google VR, Oculus, Meta, and UNVR/Variable Labs. The next #Tech4Good event will likely be in October of 2016.

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