President Barack Obama watches a virtual reality film captured during his trip to Yosemite National Park earlier this year, in the Outer Oval Office, Aug. 24, 2016. Personal aide Ferial Govashiri sits at her desk at left. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

2016 in review: virtual reality for digital diplomacy

From Syria to Iraq, from culture and heritage to disaster response, the use of VR in foreign policy is growing.


In January, the United Nations launched Clouds Over Sidra, its first-ever VR film about refugee crisis affecting Syria. The movie, first launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2015, is created by UN advisor Gabo Arora and filmaker Chris Milk. It documents the life of Sidra, a 12-year-old girl at the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, home to some 130,000 Syrians refugees.


In March, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced that it successfully tested 3-D printing and virtual reality technology to design hospitals that better meet the needs of patients.


Also in March, Amnesty International UK partnered with San Francisco-based firm Junior to launch a 360 virtual reality campaign on the crisis in Syria. “VR is the next frontier of mass digital experience, […] a great democratizing force enabling any user with any device to have a fully immersive experience, headset or not,” Junior co-founder Robbie Whiting toldAdWeek’s Tim Nudd. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a virtual reality experience is worth a whole book,” Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen added.


In May, on the occasion of the World Humanitarian Summit Exhibition Fair, UNESCO, in partnership with The Association for the Support of Free Media, with the support of Finland, produced In Their Press Vests, a 7-minute virtual reality 360 video in Syria to bring insights into the everyday risks that journalists face in conflict zones and advocate for their safety worldwide. “So many people have run out of things to say about Syria,” therapist Aya Mhanna, who treats Syrian journalists and citizens who are coping with the brutality of war their country, told Justin Salhani, world reporter at ThinkProgress. “This gives us a new method of reaching people and showing them what Syrian people go through every day.”


In May, the MFA of Ukraine announced Chornobyl 360, a virtual reality documentary, filmed in impressive locations around the Exclusion Zone and NPP. The viewer can fly over the ghost city of Pripyat, get inside the reactor’s control room, and even see exclusive interactive inserts with locations and people from 1986. The project was launched at the America House in Kiev.


Also in May, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation announced it joined the Google Art Project — an online technology platform developed by Google to promote and protect culture — to open its art collection and virtually display 176 works of art.


In July, NATO’s Euro Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) and Romania, with support from the Joint Health Agriculture and Food Group (JHAFG) and the Civil Protection Group (CPG), partnered to organize a disaster response exercise using virtual reality to simulate a large-scale emergency situation with multiple casualties and the evacuation of a large number of people.


Also in July, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy’s Summer Institute at USC explored all tools of the trade of the modern-day diplomat, including virtual reality.


In August, the New York Times released The Fight For Falluja, its latest virtual reality (VR) film. The powerful work by visual journalist Ben Solomon shows first hand the brutality of war and terror, and battles Iraqi forces endured to retake the important strategic city of Falluja from ISIS. The VR movie is part of a New York Times Magazine special feature by novelist and war correspondent Scott Anderson, with photographs by Italian photojournalists Paolo Pellegrin. It is the product of some 18 months of reporting on the catastrophe that has fractured the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq 13 years ago, leading to the rise of ISIS and the global refugee crisis.


Also in August, The White House debuted Through the Ages: President Obama Celebrates America’s National Parks, its first-ever full virtual reality 360 project featuring President Barack Obama — developed in partnership with the National Geographic, Felix & Paul Studios, and Oculus — to celebrate the US National Parks 100th anniversary.


In September, another MSF virtual reality project was announced. The international medical humanitarian organization launched Forced From Home, an interactive, traveling exhibition on the global refugee and migration crisis designed to deepen the public’s understanding of the desperate plight faced by more than 65 million displaced people worldwide.


In October, to support the exploration of technology-driven ways to engage global audiences around ideas for progress, the network-focused innovation platform LAUNCH co-hosted a Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality (VR/AR) Hack focused on development, food, and nutrition with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s innovationXchange in Canberra, Australia.


In November, Tom Perry, team leader for Pacific communications at the World Bank, bylined a post on Medium on the evolution of storytelling and the potential of virtual reality for communicating development issues. He and his team produced The Price of Conflict, The Prospect of Peace series, three 360-degree films focused on the issue of conflict across East Asia and Pacific.


Also in November, DigitalGov launched two new U.S. government-wide Communities, one specifically for virtual/augmented reality. For the first time, immersive enhanced audio and visual experiences through virtual and augmented reality are available to many U.S. citizens through smartphones and other mobile devices, opening the door to an incredible diversity of new programs and services. The project started with a workshop, creatively called the Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality for Federal Public Service Workshop, that brought together federal managers behind programs at more than 50 agencies — including the U.S. Department of State and USAID — with dozens of private sector teams ready to demo the technology that will drive our innovations together for years to come.


Please, do share information on other virtual reality projects!