The United Nations can be called many things, but “innovative” hasn’t always been one of them. Gabo Arora, a Senior Advisor to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, wants to change that. Gabo and I met over finger food at the Council on Foreign Relations, his mischievous grin and irreverent appetite for technology in obvious incongruence to our surroundings.
Gabo is the co-creator and director of the United Nations Virtual Reality (UNVR) film series, and a modern storyteller who believes in using technology to make us more human.
This week, UNVR will release its second film, “Waves of Grace,” in collaboration with the United Nations Millennium Campaign, VRSE.works, and Vice Media. The film drops virtual reality filmgoers in Liberia, and allows the viewer to live the Ebola epidemic through the eyes of one woman’s struggle. “Waves of Grace” is a first-person film that puts viewers in the space of protagonist Decontee Davis, an Ebola survivor who uses her immunity to follow fellow Liberians from tragedy and illness to recovery, and mourning to perseverance.
Technology has the power to alienate, to distract, and to wedge its notification-rich self into each of our previously blissful under-connected worlds. But it has, in equal part, the ability to connect us, to make us more human, and to build empathy between us. Arora’s vision with UNVR is to shape the medium of virtual reality, and foster our enhanced humanity.
Virtual reality can be as its name suggests, “virtual,” “aloof,” and “inauthentic.” It can be a distraction from the real, physical world, and a format that allows us to escape reality. But it can also be a new means of sharing experience, sharing reality in an all-encompassing way.
“Waves of Grace” deftly uses the virtual reality medium to take us inside the emotive, palpable world of Decontee Davis, place us in her shoes and see the world through her eyes, and witness not only the struggle of an epidemic, but the redemption of a nation. The outbreak killed 27,500 people, and orphaned 30,000 children, but as one can see through the eyes of Decontee Davis, Liberia has a story of strength, perseverance and redemption. In May 2015 Liberia was declared Ebola-free, but the process of rebuilding has only just started.
UNVR released its first VR for good film, “Clouds Over Sidra,” to acclaim at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January. There, viewers like Angela Merkel and Ban Ki-moon journeyed to a Syrian refugee camp, and saw the conflict through the eyes of a little girl named Sidra. Since its release, it has been featured in the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York, and is available in wide release using Google Cardboard.
“Waves of Grace” achieves similarly momentous aspirations. During a screening on a rooftop in New York, I felt the balmy Manhattan breeze comingle with the West African wind I was experiencing standing on the Liberian coast, watching the sun drop into the Atlantic. The film reintroduced me to my own experiences on the West African coast, and then to the roof of a derelict hotel built by Muammar Gaddafi, a crepuscular sky eclipsed by a skyline littered with rebar extensions and satellite dishes. As I panned to my left, I saw a Liberian man serenade Decontee, playing an olive oil can guitar. When the film ended, I removed the goggles, and was dropped on a rooftop. This one was rather less foreign.
Virtual reality offers storytellers the chance to take viewers to places they could not otherwise visit, placing them in intimate, authentic moments. Technology that can tell a credible story fosters empathy. And in the way humanity has better understood the pains of conflict through photography, new mediums like virtual reality enable even more intimate glimpses into far away worlds, and stark realities. What’s more, virtual reality enables an experience that is accessible via a smartphone and Google cardboard, or a basic VR headset.
Groups like UNVR are bringing the life-changing work of the UN to a new audience, and beginning to share stories driven by protagonists rather than storytellers. Technology like virtual reality is bridging gaps in access to information, and showing how its impact could potentially be long-lasting and real, palpable, and tangible, even though the medium virtual.
Virtual reality as a medium is upon us, and it’s not just for video gamers and techies. It’s a format that uses technology’s potential, and through its authenticity, fosters greater empathy.