Shared Table: VR That Matters

Emily-Rose Wagner
7 min readApr 10, 2017

Los Angeles / 28 March 2017

With new technologies, unprecedented connectivity, and a rising desire for purpose, virtual reality has emerged as a powerful platform that can not only entertain and educate us but move us to action. There are countless efforts to use VR as a transformative tool but it still faces the same challenges as traditional media — how to convert an audience’s viewing experience into real world impact.

We at enso partner with brands and communities to make positive social impact. We’ve used all media, including film, VR and digital, as well as grassroots street teams to activate communities and brands around shared missions. We recently partnered with The Nature Conservancy to create a VR film to kick off an innovative tuna conservation effort worldwide. As we created the film, we encountered conversations in the VR world around how best to deploy VR to convert goosebumps inside the goggles into meaningful action.

This inspired the premise of the “VR That Matters” Shared Table — to discuss the role virtual reality has and will play in creating social impact. In partnership with our friends and collaborators at VRScout, we convened a diverse group of people — VR creators and a hardware expert and people working in impact, education, culture, entertainment, and marketing — around a table for an intimate dinner. Afterward, we opened the conversation up to our broader community via a panel conversation. The conversation spanned the real challenges and opportunities we face in achieving impact at scale with virtual reality.

Purpose-built for impact
So often filmmakers craft their story from the POV of “I have a story to tell” without considering who the audience is and the desired action they want to inspire after a viewing. The call to action is tagged on at the end in hopes of being the silver bullet inspiring people to take action. Let’s start by identifying the outcome we desire and then re-engineer a content strategy around that action. This ensures your content is purpose built and your call-to-action is crafted for you.

Allied Partners
Creating real world impact isn’t something any VR creator or humanitarian can do alone, it’s a multidisciplinary effort that requires people with complementary expertise. We must come together and build alliances around a shared goal. By aligning interests between organizations, filmmakers, philanthropic capital, brands, etc., we can create much greater impact. These cross-sector partnerships will ignite the collective desire to drive this medium forward.

Remember the Kony 2012 film? With over 100 million views, the film raised awareness about the Ugandan cult and militia leader Joseph Kony, but people didn’t know what to do after they watched — maybe send out a tweet? The film inadvertently did create impact. Increased awareness influenced policymakers to finally accept the calls from human rights advocacy groups, like Human Rights Watch, who had dedicated years to the cause. But imagine the greater and more direct impact Kony 2012 could have had if partnerships with organizations already fighting the battle had been baked into their mission. A united alliance transcends an emotional piece of content and can create an umbrella of civic engagement. This can funnel an audience to aid in the specific tactics you set out to achieve.

Technologically meaningful storytelling
It’s not about what is technologically possible; it is about what is technologically meaningful. The “ultimate empathy machine” can only connect humans on a deep soul-to-soul level with an artfully crafted story. There is a surge of non-profits trying to use VR to raise money and awareness, but without good storytelling, the potential of the medium falls short.

It was no surprise that Clouds Over Sidra came up several times during the evening as the golden child example of impactful virtual reality. Created in partnership between Chris Milk/Within and the United Nations, the eight-minute experience transports its audience into the life of Sidra, a twelve-year-old girl that has fled her home in Syria due to the ongoing crisis and found herself in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp. The timely experience provides a glimpse into the day-to-day life of a refugee narrated by the young girl.

The artfully crafted story transports the audience into a situation no television experience (nor utilitarian VR piece) ever could, joining children at school and families eating together. In this first of its kind experimental piece, the creators crafted a compelling, educational and emotional experience which added a new storytelling language to this emerging space. The seminal piece has advanced the medium and become a model for live-action 360 documentary and documentary journalism.

Transforming empathy into action
Clouds Over Sidra’s true impact resulted from strategically showcasing the film with impact in mind. The experience was physically brought to its core target audience, influential policy makers, philanthropists, and big donors at high-level meetings so they could transport into Sidra’s reality. It helped raise $3.8 billion at a UNICEF fundraiser, $1.8 billion more than expected, ultimately transforming the way relief organizations and other NGOs approach fundraising.

To get these documentaries from decision-makers to the people, the film was translated into 15 languages for a man on the street campaign touting the experience on Google Cardboard and Gear VR, which doubled donations. Additionally, the film is being screened in classrooms across the globe and was distributed on mobile 360 platforms for everyone to view.

A main take-away from the campaign was that when someone representing the campaign could put a headset on an individual, the impact was massive. But without a household use of VR, the scalability was limited. Our table discussed VR as a powerful tool for very targeted situations, where you can help the facilitation of the viewing versus casting a piece of content onto the Internet in hopes that the right people with the right equipment on hand will watch it.

360 versus room-scale VR
Anticipate how your target audience will consume and engage with your content and optimize for that experience. 360 videos and room scale virtual reality have different uses. Different audiences. Different levels of engagement.

High-end VR set-ups show us what is possible but until these truly immersive virtual reality experiences are more accessible, it’s best used for a small targeted audience. Though a 360 video experience may not be quite as immersive as a head mounted display with six degrees of freedom, they can be distributed on Youtube and Facebook. We must continue to craft stories in which a fixed 360 perspective adds value and consider how to design for this user experience. Find creativity through constraints. We’ve only scratched the surface for what is possible.

Thank you to our co-host VRScout, Tyler Ramsy for his beautiful studio, panel host CTRL Collective, chef Ella Freyinger, photographer Amanda Gallant, and our guests listed below for joining us.

Eric Chevalier / VRScout
Malia Probst / VRScout
Jonathan Nafarrete / VRScout
Jason Nichols / enso
Carla Fernandez / enso
Emily-Rose Wagner / enso
Justin Connolly / Human Rights Watch
Vinay Narayan / HTC Vive
Polly Auritt / Mashable
David Johnson / Act 4 Ent
Ivana Coleman / Emblematic Group
Nicholas Whitaker / Google News Lab
Davina Wolter /Natural History Museum LA
Matt Ippolito / RYOT
Danielle Silber /International Rescue Committee
Rob Ruffler / Viacom Next
Christina Heller / VR Playhouse
Tyler Ramsey /Artist
John Canning / NBCUniversal