I'm standing on the rooftop of an abandoned building in Monrovia, Liberia. My gaze drifts from the setting sun to the man next to me strumming a homemade guitar. Singing along is a young woman named Decontee Davis, a survivor of the Ebola pandemic that has tormented West Africa since 2013. She's just led me on a tear-jerking tour of her life here in Liberia, including the hospital where her immunity lets her nurse the sick without risk of infection.
There's no risk to me though—in fact, she and I aren't really here. It's the final scene in a virtual reality documentary I've been immersed in for the last six minutes, courtesy of the United Nations.
Waves of Grace is the second in a series of short films made in collaboration with VR video app Vrse and filmmaker Chris Milk (and some funding from VICE). It's an effort to use virtual reality to connect people with real life in the strife-ridden parts of the world that too often remain distant and abstract.
Even with the limitations of current VR gear, it's damn effective, enough that it's easy to talk about the film as though it were an actual experience. Decontee Davis's voice was in my ear as I stood at the side of a hospital bed, where she sat with a patient for whom human contact was no longer a part of everyday life. I visited a dusty schoolyard where children sang and glanced warily at me. I stood at the foot of an open grave as anonymous men in white suits lowered a body bag, so close I could almost feel it brush my knees.
"I just didn't feel like they were really, truly understanding what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes, and I think that all of them need to."
Removing the headset, I was suddenly returned to the top floor of the swanky Manhattan hotel where the screening was held. Surrounded by well-dressed people holding wine glasses as they took turns putting on the headset for their own moment in Davis's world, the disorientation drove home just how immediate Ebola-ravaged Liberia had felt during those six minutes.
For years, people have been talking about the power of VR as a tool for building empathy. Journalists, artists, doctors, are among the many who've been experimenting with the medium's ability to convince the brain to accept what it's being shown as real.
Gabo Arora is new media advisor for the UN and co-director of these documentaries. He and a cameraman traveled with a custom-built camera that shoots 3D video in 360 degrees. It's discreet enough to be left running in the middle of, say, a classroom, and occasionally becomes an object of curiosity to passers by. The result is not unlike what it might feel like to be an out-of-place visitor, sidelong gazes and all (of course it's just people curious about the weird camera, but it feels like it's directed right at you). It all combines to make this distant place that's been devastated by Ebola feel present and tangible.
"This is how people are living in a very ordinary way, but there's a horror in the ordinary," Arora says. "I'm not in front of them with the camera. They become alone with their own struggles, and you're able to see them in their ordinary way get through something that's terrible."
Heads of state, billionaire donors and other decision makers make up a key intended audience for these films. In the first UN VR doc, Clouds Over Sidra, a young Syrian girl takes viewers on a poignant tour of the Za'atari refugee camp where she lives. Its first screening was held at the World Economic Forum in Davos where some of the world's wealthiest and most powerful people donned headsets to experience a slice of displaced life in Syria.
In his former role as a senior policy advisor at the UN, Arora says he saw first-hand the disconnect that can exist between the powerful and those who live with the consequences of their decisions.
"I think a lot of these people, even when they would go into Za'atari Camp or someplace like that, it's with an entourage," he says. "I just didn't feel like they were really, truly understanding what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes, and I think that all of them need to."
The reach is spreading fast. There are already copies of Clouds of Sidra in 40 different countries and 15 different languages, with plans to extend into classrooms. Arora says there are also some promising signs that these films may actually stimulate fundraising where they're used. That may ultimately be the most important factor in whether this uncharted program survives at an institution that's quite content to continue trotting out celebrities as its main way of raising awareness around world issues.