How the United Nations Is Using Virtual Reality to Boost Global Diplomacy

Modern storytelling comes to life

Headshot of Marty Swant

During the United Nations' 70th General Assembly last week, the U.N. attempted to bridge the gap between world leaders and Syrian refugees with a mix of virtual reality, documentary-style videos and good, old-fashioned conversation. It's an example of modern storytelling on one of the world's biggest stages that tech-minded marketers could learn from.

Past security checks and inside the United Nations' New York headquarters, a pop-up digital portal transported thousands of U.N. delegates, staff and visitors to the Za'atari refugee camp near the Jordan-Syria border. The experience utilized Samsung's Gear VR headset and essentially came in two parts: a film and a talk. 

Gabo Arora, a senior advisor at the United Nations Millennium Campaign, partnered with filmmaker Chris Milk to produce Clouds Over Sidra, a nine-minute film about a 12-year-old girl named Sidra. Her family lives in the Za'atari camp, where more than 80,000 of the roughly 4 million displaced Syrians now reside after fleeing their country's five-year civil war.

Officials hope the effort will help shine a new light on a global crisis. (Video stills appear below.)



"What we're trying to do is challenge stereotypes," Arora said. "To give you something that allows you to be somewhere with someone at their level, and to try to really listen to them and try to really understand what they're going through. So the technology allows that, because you are given a sense of presence where you can feel and be somewhere that you couldn't be with another medium. But at the same time, we're choosing just to show in a simple way what their life is like and for you to make the connection in your own head."

Created using a proprietary 360-degree camera made by Vrse, the documentary was filmed in about a week and produced in a month. Among those who have seen the film are U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, King of the Netherlands Willem-Alexander and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.

But in some ways, what's more important than the virtual-reality film was what happened next. Thanks to a partnership with Shared Studios (its website boasts its "carving wormholes across the world"), a booth was set up in the refugee camp with video on a screen, with another setup at the U.N., letting world leaders and refugees have anonymous conversations about life in the camp and elsewhere.


"There's a difference between empathy and pity," Arora said. "I think a lot of what we think about with seeing things in the news, it's more trying to get you to feel pity. And the difference between empathy and pity for me is that pity is done with a hierarchy—empathy is done with a shared experience."

Arora said the cutting-edge exhibit was the first of many portals to be set up across the country, with others opening in the coming weeks in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Nashville, Tenn. While the U.N. portal was meant to be temporary, Arora said there have already been requests to leave it up for the long term.

"We're looking to make this a permanent portal system," he said, "and we want to do more, because it's not that hard. And I think in some ways if the U.N. can start to get some people we work closely with to actually talk to people all over the world and also talk to decisions makers, we can get another sense of how our work is having an impact."



@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.