Last week's United Nations General Assembly made headlines for a new plan to double the number of refugees allowed into its member nations and to expand aid. But while politicians were making bold speeches about a proposal that may or may not be enforced, the first ever United Nations Creative Director Gabo Arora was quietly introducing delegates to the new media technology that is changing how the 71-year-old institution makes decisions.
When I visit Arora's team on the first day of the General Assembly, they're tucked into a corner of the UN Headquarters' ornate entrance hall greeting delegates with virtual reality goggles. Representatives from all over the world—the Netherlands, Nigeria, Jordan—load up the UNVR app and follow. In the back, there's a full-scale two-way video chat screen Arora calls the Portal—one of 30 screens designed by Shared Studios and staffed full-time—allowing the powers that be to talk to refugees in real time.
To get in the same mindset as the powers that be, who were literally all in attendance, I tried both. In the Portal, I met an Iraqi teenager named Mustafa who showed me dance moves a Brooklyn hip-hop group taught him the week before. Then I watched Beyond the Lake, following a mother named Nahimana Fainesi who was forced to flee Burundi's civil war while her children were hidden with an aunt. As she struggles to make ends meet at a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she constantly yearns to return home to retrieve her kids. Arora's assistant tells me it's not uncommon to get the goggles back covered in tears.
Arora is a self-described "unsuccessful filmmaker," who came up in New York's East Village in the 90s, but found more success as an activist than an artist. He came into the UN through advocating for UNICEF, but became enamored with virtual reality after linking up with Within founder Chris Milk in 2014. Together they made Clouds Over Sidra, which he screened at last year's General Assembly. The 2016 meeting of delegates marks Arora's first time with space inside the UN headquarters, real estate that is well-earned.
In just two years, Arora's advocacy for VR has proven to be a powerful tool for the UN. It's well-documented that charities can make a lot more money by incorporating VR experiences. Last year Charity: Water earned an uncharacteristically generous $2.4 million sum gathered after screening The Source at a black tie banquet at the Met, and UNICEF doubled its donation rate in man-on-the-street campaigns by showing prospective donors Clouds Over Sidra. In March of 2015, Arora screened the same film at the UN's Humanitarian Pledging Conference in Kuwait, which raised $3.8 billion—nearly twice Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's projections.
It's no surprise VR is useful to an organization like the UN, which relies on donor support. While tech junkies may feel hype fatigue around the concept of VR as an "empathy machine," one Stanford University study indicates the term is accurate when it comes to the prospect of compromise. When measuring a subject's likelihood to compromise during negotiation, researchers at their Virtual Interations Lab found that, of 842 participants, "those who experientially learned about the other party’s perspective felt more positive about their relationships and made greater concessions during the negotiation than those who were simply provided information about the other party’s perspective." Pamphlets, YouTube videos, and hard stats—the evidence shows—just aren't as good at raising money as VR.
Arora's current project involves turning that power into policy. In 2015 he and Milk showed Clouds Over Sidra to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Later that year, he was given a spot in the media hub outside the UN General Assembly to show delegates the potential of VR, some of whom are already using the technology to persuade other members to take action.
International politicians are an ideal audience for VR, Arora says, because their perception of reality is distorted by their influence. When they visit refugee camps in person, officials rush to present themselves in the best light and residents get shy or nervous around the people who control their fate.
In contrast, interviewees tend to act naturally in front of VR cameras, according to Iraqi journalist Rawand Saeed. We talked through the Portal about the logistics of making a VR film. "It was a really new experience for me, particularly because of [how it affected] the people I interviewed. I would put the camera in the room and they had no idea. I said, 'Just talk to me.'" Saeed says. He recently shot a film for San Diego-based studio Akibimi Productions about life in Sinjar, Iraq. When I ask if he thinks virtual reality is more effective than other mediums, he excitedly cuts me off—"Of course. It makes a really positive impact on the whole crisis because it shows how people live... They can get into the story better than the usual videos and photographs." If UNVR takes root, this kind of filmmaking it could have longer-lasting effects than the new refugee initiative itself.
Jordan's King Abdullah, whose country is hosting 1.4 million refugees—more than every country in the European Union combined—casts doubts on the strength of the agreement. "The refugee crisis requires not just [pledged] commitment but follow-through,” he reminded the UN after the announcement, according to The Guardian. Deputy director of global advocacy for Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion, also doesn't think the agreement has the teeth to effect the change refugees need. "Is the outcome document up to the challenge? No, unquestionably it's not," he tells the The New York Times. "Does that mean the summit is pointless? No, because it's precisely at moments like this that you need to regroup."
Virtual reality could play a major role in that regrouping process. Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama from Nigeria watched My Mother's Wing—the heartbreaking story of a Gaza woman coping with the death of her children—and said, "All world leaders need to see this. Truly amazing." Arora adds, "Mr. Onyeama watched the whole film and now wants to use VR [to talk about] what is happening in his country with Boko Haram."
Arora wants make the UN a place where people from all over the world can document their lives. He's currently developing an ultra cost-effective VR film kit to make the medium available to artists in every member state. "The Scorsese of virtual reality could be living in Uganda," Arora says excitedly. If his plan succeeds, UNVR could simultaneously spawn an international VR film boom and give artists a chance to bring their problems directly to the people who can solve them.