How can virtual reality offer a new medium for public outreach?

Yesterday as I drove to work on my usual course that crisscrosses through an upper-class neighborhood, (thank you Waze) saving me time avoiding commercial streets. There was a man lying on the sidewalk in front of a beautiful home whom I had never seen before. It took me by surprise.

The contrast in the scene was harsh. His home was not more than a cold concrete slab a jacket tucked under his head as a pillow, and a shopping cart with a few personal items. Yet it was in front of a home that is probably worth in the neighborhood of nearly one million dollars.

The journalist in me wanted to take the photo. The human in me did not want to invade his privacy.

But the image is stuck in my head. It was in your face homelessness. It wasn’t skid row. It wasn’t a back alley. It was a bright shining light on the haves and have-nots in broad daylight.

Homelessness is, unfortunately, a story in the news today that is so commonplace it often goes uncovered. But if new digital media technology was used to tell the story of the humanitarian crisis happening in our own cities in America, perhaps more would be done to help.

In an interview with Dan Pacheco, Dan Archer, CEO of Empathetic Media, points out that it is ironic that virtual reality and headsets can make people empathetic. Yet, it can. Archer’s VR piece, “Ferguson Firsthand” allowed people to explore the story and see it from a different experience.

Archer speaking about his “Ferguson Firsthand” project says, “Fundamentally it was around the idea of spatializing a story and what that meant, how news coverage works or doesn’t in many cases to try to portray these complexities when you get to a crime scene, or an incident, and you’re trying to map out literally the journalist themselves or the researcher has o put together the different threads and try to analyze the different weights of different testimonies.”

Virtual Reality allows people to judge for themselves based on perspective. They can map out stories in their own mind and see things differently.

I can see how telling this homeless man’s story in Virtual Reality could help someone walking or driving by to understand the harsh reality of his life. The viewer could see what it’s like to live in this homeless man’s shoes.

How can organizations that rely upon public outreach utilize VR? One way would be as a storytelling technique for charities trying to raise awareness. A children’s hospital could use VR to take a potential donor through a day in the life of a patient. A charity that raises money for areas that need food, could show the extreme need in a way that takes the viewer to the story and lets them see the dire need first hand.

This is a powerful medium and tapping into people’s senses through Virtual Reality has the potential to affect great change in society.