Gabo Arora founded the United Nations VR, and directed some for the more well-known VR empathy experiences starting with Clouds Over Sidra in December 2014 in collaboration with Chris Milk and Here Be Dragons. Milk first showed Clouds Over Sidra during Sundance 2015, and featured it prominently in his VR as the Ultimate Empathy Machine TED talk in March 2015, which popularized VR’s unique abilities for cultivating empathy.
I had a chance to catch up with Arora at Oculus’ VR for Good premiere party at Sundance where we talked about directing Clouds Over Sidra, his new social enterprise The LightShed Collective, and the importance of storytelling in creating VR empathy experiences.
LISTEN TO THE VOICES OF VR PODCAST
Arora’s work has been at cross section of storytelling and technology, and diplomacy and humanitarian efforts. He studied film in college, but was unable to launch a successful film career in Hollywood, and instead turned towards humanitarian work with NGOs after 9/11 and eventually with the United Nations in 2009. He used his creative sensibilities to move beyond written text reports, and look to the power of new media to tell humanitarian stories. He had some success with collaborating with social media sensation Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton by coordinating a 50-day global trip with in 2014 in order to raise awareness of millennium development goals. He proved the power of using emerging technology to promote humanitarian goals.
After he was introduced to Chris Milk in 2014, he gathered enough support to create a virtual reality lab at UN staring with creating an experience about the Syrian refugee crisis. Clouds Over Sidra was shot in two days in December 2014 at the Za’atari Refugee Camp, which had over 80,000 Syrian refugees. Arora wanted to focus on a day in the life of a 12-year old refugee, and collaborated with his UN contacts to find the young female protagonist named Sidra. Arora said that a big key to cultivating empathy in virtual reality is to focus on the common ordinary aspects of day-to-day living whether that’s eating a meal or preparing for school. While some of these scenes would seem like non-sequiturs in a 2D film, the sense of presence that’s cultivated in VR gives the feeling of being transported into their world and a feeling of being more connected to the place and story.
Arora acknowledges that merely showing suffering of others can have the opposite effect of cultivating empathy. He cites Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others as a book that helped provide some guidelines for how to represent the pain of others. He’s aware that we can have a lustful relationship towards violence, and that there are risks of normalizing suffering can create an overwhelming sensory overload. He’s addresses some of Paul Bloom’s arguments in Against Empathy in that there’s a bias towards empathizing with people who look or act like you. If there’s too much of a difference, then it can be difficult to connect through on any common ground. This is a big reason why Arora has typically focused on finding ways of representing the moments of common humanity within the larger context of fleeing from war or coping with a spreading disease like Ebola.
Arora was able to show that Clouds Over Sidra was able to help the United Nations beat their projected fundraising goal of $2.3 billion dollars by raising over $3.8 billion, but he’s much more confident in showing the UNICEF’s numbers of being able to double face-to-face donations from 1 in 12 without VR to 1 in 6 with VR with an increase of 10% per donation. With these types of numbers, there’s been a bit of a gold rush for NGOs to start making VR experiences for a wide range of causes, but Arora cautions that not all have been successful because not all of them have had an emphasis on good storytelling or the technical expertise that he’s enjoyed with his collaborations with Within.
Hamlet on the Holodeck author Janet H. Murray recently echoed the importance of good storytelling in VR experiences by saying that “empathy in great literature or journalism comes from well-chosen and highly specific stories, insightful interpretation, and strong compositional skills within a mature medium of communication. A VR headset is not a mature medium — it is only a platform, and an unstable and uncomfortable one at that.” The storytelling conventions of VR are still emerging, and the early VR empathy pieces have been largely relying upon conventions of traditional filmmaking.
Arora admits that there’s a certain formulaic structure that most of these early VR empathy pieces have taken that rely upon voice over narration, but he says that he started to dial back the voice overs in his most recent piece The Ground Beneath Her. He says that his recent collaboration with Milk & Here Be Dragons on the U2 Song for Someone music video showed him that there’s a lot that can be communicated without resorting to voice overs.
Murray argues that “VR is not a film to be watched but a virtual space to be visited and navigated through,” and she actually recommends “no voice-overs, no text overlays, no background music.” I’ve independently come to the same conclusion, and generally agree with this sentiment because most voice over narrations or translations feel scripted and stilted. They are also often recorded within a studio that doesn’t match the direct and reflected sounds of the physical locations that are shown, which creates a fidelity mismatch that can break presence and prevent me from feeling completely immersed within the soundscapes of another place.
I’ve found that the cinéma vérité approach of having authentic dialog spoken directly within a scene works really well, or that it works best if the audio is directing me to pay attention to specific aspects to the physical locations that are being shown. After watching all ten of the Oculus for Good pieces at Sundance, one of the most common things that I saw is not having the physical location match whatever is being talked about. Sometimes they’re interesting locations to look at, but it ends up putting the majority of storytelling responsibility within the audio. If the audio were to be taken away, then the visual storytelling isn’t strong enough to stand on it’s own.
6×9’s Francesca Panetta used audio tour guides as an inspiration for how to use audio in order to cultivate a deeper sense of presence within the physical location being shown. One live-action VR piece that does this really well was a cinéma vérité piece by Condition One called Fierce Compassion, which features an animal rights activist speaking on camera taking you on a guided tour through an open rescue as it’s happening. The live delivery of narration feels much more dynamic when it’s spoken within the moment, and feels much more satisfying than a scripted narration that’s written and recorded after the fact.
A challenging limitation to many NGO empathy pieces is that they often feature non-English speakers who need to be translated later by a translator who doesn’t always match the emotional authenticity and dynamic speaking style of the original speaker. Emotional authenticity and capturing a live performance are some key elements of what I’ve found makes a live-action VR experience so captivating, but it’s been rare to find that in VR productions so far. There are often big constraints of limited time and budgets, which means that most of them end up featuring voice over narratives after the fact since this is the easiest way of telling a more sophisticated story. This formula has proven to be successful for Arora’s empathy pieces so far, but it still feels like a hybrid between traditional filmmaking techniques and what virtual reality experiences will eventually move towards, which I think Murray quite presciently lays out in her piece about emerging immersive storyforms.
Arora’s work with the UN in collaboration with Within has inspired everyone from the New York Times VR to Oculus’s VR for Good program and HTC’s VR for Impact. It also inspired Chris Milk’s TED talk about VR as the “ultimate empathy machine”, which is a meme that has been cited on the Voices of VR podcast dozens of times.
But the film medium is also a powerful empathy machine as Arora cites Moonlight as a particularly powerful empathy piece that was released in 2016. Roger Ebert actually cited movies as the “most powerful empathy machine” during his Walk of Fame speech in 2005. He said:
We are born into a box of space and time. We are who and when and what we are and we’re going to be that person until we die. But if we remain only that person, we will never grow and we will never change and things will never get better.
Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.
This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I’m not just stuck being myself, day after day.
The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.
Ebert’s words about film as a powerful empathy machine as just as true today as when he said it in 2005. I do believe that virtual reality has the power to create an even deeper sense of embodied presence that can trigger mirror neurons, and may eventually prove to become the “ultimate empathy machine.” VR may also eventually allow us to virtually walk in someone else’s shoes to the point where our brains may not be able to tell the difference between what’s reality and what’s a simulation. But as Murray warns, “empathy is not something that automatically happens when a user puts on a headset.” It’s something that is accomplished through evolving narrative techniques to take full advantage of the unique affordances of VR, and at the end of the day will come down to good storytelling just like any other medium.
Donate to the Voices of VR Podcast Patreon
[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So on today's episode, I talk to Gabo Arora, who is the founder of UNVR and one of the biggest proponents of empathy in virtual reality. Gabbo collaborated with Chris Milk back in December of 2014 to shoot Clouds Over Sidra, which went on to be one of the most impactful empathy pieces within VR that has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people. It was shown at Sundance in 2015, and then Time saw it and then helped inspire their virtual reality program. Chris Mill gave a talk about Clouds of Residua at TED in March of 2015, which really put that meme out there of VR as the empathy machine. So, Gabo's entire career has been at the cross-section of storytelling and technology, diplomacy and humanitarianism. So, we talk about producing Clouds of Residua, which is about the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as some of the other different pieces he's produced with the UNVR, as well as his future work with LightShedVR. So we'll be doing a deep dive into empathy in VR on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference and Expo. SVVR is the can't miss virtual reality event of the year. It brings together the full diversity of the virtual reality ecosystem. And I often tell people if they can only go to one VR conference, then be sure to make it SVVR. You'll just have a ton of networking opportunities and a huge expo floor that shows a wide range of all the different VR industries. SVVR 2017 is happening March 29th to 31st. So go to VRExpo.com to sign up today. So this interview with Gabo happened at Oculus' VR for Good premiere that was happening at Sundance on January 23rd, 2017 in Park City, Utah. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:14.825] Gabo Arora: My name is Gabo Arora. I was founder of UNBR, the United Nations Virtual Reality Lab, and I've directed and produced a series of films for the United Nations. Clouds Over Sidra, Waves of Grace are some of the ones people might be familiar with, which were at Sundance, and My Mother's Wing, which was at Tribeca Film Festival. We also run an app, and we also are just trying to democratize and make VR a tool for the UN's mission and for the overall good of the planet and humanity.
[00:02:50.901] Kent Bye: Can you talk a bit about how you got into VR? Were you already working at the UN? Or maybe you could talk about how this all got started for you.
[00:02:57.965] Gabo Arora: Sure, I've worked full-time for the United Nations since 2009 and before that I was a humanitarian working for NGOs and conflict zones and other parts of the world in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, India. And so I've always been in the humanitarian world. But before that, as an undergraduate at New York University, I studied philosophy and film. And I had actually moved to L.A. after film school and tried to direct and get into the industry. And things went horribly, and it was very depressing. And then 9-11 happened around that time. I graduated in 1999. did that, failed, was in New York. 9-11 happened and then I felt this call to action to really engage with the world, really do things that were related with foreign policy. So I just was on that humanitarian track and it wasn't until 2013 when I was based with the UN in New York that I just felt this sort of creative urges come back again because I really felt that the world was changing with new media, with YouTube, with so many ways that we could develop content, not just VR, but using new media in general. So I had proposed that instead of reports, that there was data visualizations. And when we would have our events, I would try to do things related with social media and other ways to do it. So I made some viral videos that have millions of hits that really did well for the Climate Change Summit. So that was like my first sort of thing that social good, new media. I worked with Humans of New York's UN tour. Basically, I saw Brandon had more influence and power than all of our social media accounts online. And I just told the UN, I said, you know, this is the new world. You have this guy who you don't take seriously, but I'd like to call in and co-curate and co-produce a world tour of what he does in the streets of New York. And we did that, and that was enormously successful. And so all of a sudden I was elevated a bit that I should explore new technologies. We were going to go to Davos again in 2015, is when Clouds of Residue debuted at Davos. and so I had heard about virtual reality and I was fortunate enough that I was on that sort of pursuit and then someone introduced me to Chris Milk and meeting Chris Milk of course changed my life as I'm sure it did for many people's lives in VR as Chris has in some ways been responsible not only for UNVR but New York Times VR and probably a million other people behind the scenes of him doing it so I was very fortunate that he believed in me and was able to mentor me to really try to make films on these issues and he wasn't sure how to do them either and I was able to get a camera and went to Zaatari refugee camp with a really custom-rigged not really great camera but we did the best we could I went with Barry Pausman who is also a collaborator at the UN and UNBR. It was the both of us just on the ground and that's how we got into it. Clouds Over Sidra unofficially premiered at Sundance because Chris snuck it in and then Shari didn't complain because it was really great. And so they always like to, even at Sundance, they always like to say, you know, it kind of debuted here, you know, we're going to take credit for that one. So that was very touching. And then since then, the response was overwhelming, you know, I mean, not just media wise, but how people would feel with it. And it really felt like we were onto something that was unprecedented, unique, exciting, engaging. Of course, Clouds Over Sidra, of course, influenced the New York Times because They really saw that and they said we need to get into VR. It's had this sort of incredible influence on What looks simple now back then was a huge, huge bet, a huge, huge hypothesis that VR can be used for good, that people would care, that it wouldn't be boring, that people would engage with it. There's so many unknowns. And then just the editing and the thinking of it and the pacing. If you think about what we were up against, it was one impossible after the other, but somehow it defined a genre and a grammar. And now it's a grammar I'm constantly trying to break out of because... One of my new films that I made called Ground Beneath Her, I just stripped away the VO and it's about the singing and it's about music. And I also worked with Chris on the U2 VR video Song for Someone and I was the second unit director on that. And I learned so much about the role of music and emotion and other things. So, you know, I'm constantly trying to break out of that mold. Although it's very easy when you've figured out that there, I don't want to say there's a formula, but there is kind of a way that I think you can get people to care and engage. But we're trying to constantly challenge ourselves and how we do it.
[00:08:06.487] Kent Bye: Yeah, I know with doing over 500 interviews of the voices of VR, people have referenced the Syrian refugee camp and the clouds of Syria at least, you know, two or three dozen times of different people. And so it's definitely had an impact of, you know, when people think about the ultimate potential of VR, they see the impact that that film had in terms of really building empathy for transporting you into this Syrian refugee crisis and really personalizing it in a really profound way. And so Maybe you can talk a bit about what was it like to actually be there and shoot it, and then kind of the response that came after that.
[00:08:41.548] Gabo Arora: Yeah, when we went there, it was December 2014. It was late December, actually, when we were there, right before Christmas. And it was crazy because we wanted to have it ready by Sundance a month later, and that's just unheard of. And we were only able to do it because what we were going to show at Sundance would later be remastered because it was totally breaking apart. So, when I went there, it was through the UN contacts, and we had a 48-hour permit. That was it. We couldn't get more. It was not allowed that we could film there for more than 48 hours. So already, I was like, okay. And then, I had the concept that we should do it on a young girl, and maybe, I had seen a video that UNHCR had done about young girls playing soccer in Zaatari refugee camp. to Syrian refugee camp near the Syrian border in Jordan. And I had seen that and I said, that's pretty cool, like girls, you know, in their hijabs yet playing soccer. And a lot of them would say they couldn't play soccer back in Syria. And it was this kind of silver lining that they could. So I just thought something around that image would be really powerful. And so I called UNICEF and I said, can you find me a 12-year-old girl and someone who, you know, works with our programs, would want to like just give us a day in the life of like what her life is like. They explained to me and they gave me the map of the camp. So everything remotely, I had to be like, okay, we'll go here, we'll go here, we'll go here. And then when we got on the ground, a lot of that changed because Sidra was like, Like, there's this computer lab I can't go into, but it's supposed to be really cool, you should check it out. You know, we brought in other elements that I think, you know, maybe I thought would make it more interesting. So when we were on the ground, I mean, people are unbelievably kind, generous, hospitable, but I think they only agreed to do this because it was in VR. because what they were sick and tired of at that time, and this is December 2014, imagine what it is now, because Zaatari was the largest camp and also one of the best run camps, it became like this sort of emblematic, almost, how do I say this respectfully, but like a tourist destination for journalists and everyone, because it was safe, you could talk to people and write your story, you can get what you needed. And what ended up happening to a lot of these people, they just really felt exploited. And you know Syrians let's not forget we're on pace to meet all of the development goals an overall Middle-income even very wealthy parts of the country with a lot of sophistication and education For them like they're like, you know, we're not we're not gonna take your crap, you know, we know what you're doing You're just basically using us you're just getting these sort of like images and you're putting them on your thing and the situation is not getting better and and you're just lying to us and we just waste our time and we're like puppets. They're very angry, you know? And I had to really sit down with them and explain to them how this was different, how we would ensure, above all everything, to make sure that this had an impact to the best of our ability, that we would show it, if we could, to decision makers at Davos, but at the UN. I had the vision at that point. And with a little bit of that, they became very open to it. I also think some of it is the fact that they thought I looked Syrian. I was like, no, I'm not Syrian. And I think there was a little bit more of a trust in the community. But I've also worked and lived in similar communities for over 15 years. I think you really understand a lot of outsiders come in, don't necessarily have that. And I think we worked with people on the ground at the UN who had very good relationships with these families. So it was difficult, and we did that. And it was something we had to do very quickly. And I think it was something that I'll never forget. Each one of the films we've done has had its own magic of being able to tell the stories of the most vulnerable people on the planet. in a medium that's completely new that almost, I find it to be so amazing that people usually would run to listen to the newest thing, it's entertainment or it's a pop song. But I saw with Clouds Over Seadrift, because it was in virtual reality and because it was powerful, they were running to her story. Like in some ways, her story, privileging those people in this new medium and allowing it to reach people and affect them, and not just be entertainment or not be other things, I thought was just incredibly powerful. I think that in itself is why I wanted to do it, because I had never heard or seen anything like that in any other medium before, that something like this, it's this 12-year-old girl that most people are referencing, you know, rather than some clown movie or something. I don't want to be against that, because I have a lot of friends in entertainment, and I love entertainment as well. But I just think we're living in a certain time right now where everything needs to be used, everything at our disposal. And I think Clouds Over Sidra is that example and I hope that the other ones too inspire the same kind of change. And we always build those types of things. Like our film on Gaza, My Mother's Wing, was shown on the streets of Israel to give people a chance to understand what the other side is living through. Waves of Grace is a story about an Ebola survivor, and we use that in pledging conferences and to educate a lot of people that survivors are not, like, cursed, you know, that you shouldn't be afraid of them, and it's being used for sensitization campaigns, so it's amazing. It's been an amazing ride in that way.
[00:14:17.735] Kent Bye: Can you talk a bit about, you know, how you were able to use some of these VR films and show them to world leaders and some of the different metrics that you use to measure the impact of this type of immersive storytelling?
[00:14:30.278] Gabo Arora: Yeah, I mean, initially we decided to put it with our pledging conferences that were upcoming for Syria and for Ebola. And so we would just slot it into the Secretary General's schedule, where if he was going to be asking for money, and there was usually a projected number of what that would be, we would put this in and we would consistently find that we would out-raise what we were looking to raise. I still didn't feel that was very rigorous or scientific, because you can't really prove that's the film, you know? So I'm a bit of a stickler on that because I just don't think we should exaggerate. So there was a lot of inflated numbers that are out there that are in theory true because the projected was one thing and we outpaced them. But what I got more interested was when I got in touch with my colleagues at UNICEF. UNICEF has one of the biggest face-to-face fundraising networks in the world. And basically they're in 40 different countries in 15 different languages every day, all the time, with clipboard, stopping you on the street, asking you for money. And it's one of their greatest ways of getting money. And it's the way they're able to really be this first-class organization, because they're not just funded by tax dollars, they're funded by private donations that you can get on the street. And they have that mandate. They got in touch with me, I got in touch with them, and we decided, we knew how many people donate if you don't have VR. It's 1 in 12, if you're stopped, give you money. So we outfitted them with a four-minute film. After some iterations, I cut down Clouds of Residue to four minutes and gave people that type of experience, then asked for money afterwards. But we had to iterate and I had to work and train people. I make it sound simple, but it's really difficult. Is it four minutes? Is it two minutes? Is it six minutes? Do you ask after? Do you give them time to decompress? There's a multitude of questions of what can work. Do things work better in certain cultural situations? In Korea versus Norway versus Brazil? This is not easy stuff. But we found consistently that it was doubling donations. One in six people were giving. And it was actually increasing the average donation that they were giving by 10%. And these were not one-time donations. These were monthly subscriptions that people were doing with their credit card. And the first time, everyone was like, whoa. And I think what I try to tell people, I'm very happy about that, but I'm also an artist. which annoys a lot of people, especially at the UN, is then there was almost like, we gotta make more of these, everyone's gotta make one, we're all gonna double donations. And it hasn't worked out like that because not all the films, and excuse me for not being humble, they're not clouds of procedure. They're not made by some of the best production companies and people that have been a part of that film and all my films. I mean, all my films are just, they're not me. They are me, but they're like an incredible machinery of like support and thinking and creativity. Like none of their films are just like, hey, we just shot it. We like hit our heads against the wall of what's going to really work and we do it. And I think for a lot of other people, they just thought, wow, it's the technology. And I said, no, it's the story. It's the artistry. It's because it's timeless. I was like, I don't know. I mean, what if you like made everybody listen to one by U2 and then ask them for money? I don't know. Would it increase donations? Probably, you know, but you're missing it, you know, and for me that's been really difficult because then I got a deluge of all the time. We're an NGO, we're this for our mission. And then when I start talking to them, I said, you know, I had the final say on Clouds Over Sioux. I had the final say on all my movies. I basically have final cut. I say, this is what we're doing. And I fight to the death to people about it, especially at the UN. who are not used to someone telling them what to do. They're used to seeing creatives and filmmakers as court jesters, really, you know, as someone who's just in there that they don't take seriously, that they're just gonna sprinkle on top. When, because of my sort of role as also a development economist, I had a more senior position, I tried to carve out a real respectful place for creativity, you know, and I lobbied very hard to be the UN's first creative director, which, you know, they're probably gonna get rid of anyway now, I mean, because there's a new administration and there's all these things but I wanted to at least say like creativity rules and you guys are writing your reports I get a little antagonistic so it's not always great but I was like you guys are writing your reports and like I respect what you do because I used to do it but you're not having the same impact that VR is and I'm saying that and I think you need to double down on it we need to go stronger in it because people are going to be so excited by what we're doing and To some extent that's been true, but I don't think I've gotten as much support as I'd like because it's hard to break out of that. And it's such an important institution, but it still has a very rigid hierarchy and bureaucracy that's constantly killing good ideas and constantly discouraging and disheartening a lot of people who work for it. And so for me, I'm very proud to have worked for it, but I knew that if I didn't do something especially during this time in history What would I tell my kids? What would I tell everybody that the world was burning and I was just like collecting a check at the United Nations and not necessarily putting Myself on the line not trying to do something that was going to be different or move it and so I I always do it, and my job is always on the line, and I'm always constantly in the crosshairs of some older bureaucrat, you know. It's a silver-haired brigade out there that is trying to hold back a lot of people, and I just try to... To be fair, you know, you form your alliances, and things have moved, but I sometimes ask myself, I was like, I don't know how long I can do this, you know. I just don't know. I mean... The association with VR, with the UN, has allowed for there to be more impact because I have more access, because I have this distribution thing, because we have the fundraisers. And I did a screening for the Security Council when they were talking about Palestine. We showed my mother's wing. Who else? How else? Isn't that like the ultimate pinnacle of like, what are we trying to do? And I said, man, all right, so I got to stick around. But how do I continue to stick around, but continue to innovate? I have a million ideas of how VR for good could work. And that's why I'm associated in working with Oculus. And we got HTC to commit $10 million for VR for impact. And I've started my own company, LightShed, where I'm trying to really have that power a lot of my work that cannot work just through the UN system, you know, is able to really seek investment and help build some of the tools that could help power some of these things, like with fintech, you know, or eye recognition for donation, like a lot of these things I'd love to do, but I think, you know, at some point I'm going to have to do it with private investment, and at some point I'm going to have to do it with the autonomy and leverage that I'd have with my own organization. And that's why, you know, I'm slowly coming out of the closet with that, you know, and negotiating, you know, probably a new role for myself at the United Nations, where I continue to advise and work on signature projects that I really care about. At the same time, grow out things independently that would be related with VR for social impact.
[00:21:47.648] Kent Bye: Yeah, it seems like the common thread of virtual reality for a lot of these different experiences and all these different places around the world that has the United Nations involved is that it's taking you to another place and it's giving you a sense of really transporting you to that realm and letting you step into somebody else's world. And I think that that sense of embodied presence within that environment allows you to also connect to the people that are featured in these pieces. allows you to really cultivate that deeper sense of empathy. But I'm curious since I think that, you know, Clouds of Sidra is probably often cited as one of the paradigmatic examples of empathy in VR. Like, what do you think are the key components of really fostering and cultivating that empathy within a virtual reality piece?
[00:22:33.463] Gabo Arora: Yeah, I mean, I have very... I've thought about it a lot because when we did Clouds Over Sidra, to be honest, we just did it and I had some sort of intuitive understanding of how I wanted it to be. What I didn't want it to be is what most other PSAs for NGOs or UN stuff does. Because those videos don't have a lot of hits. They're about programs. The audience is donors. The audience is not necessarily people. They don't privilege the story of people. So for me, one of the main things I felt, I'm a huge, huge fan of Abbas Khuriastami, who passed away last year. He's an Iranian director. And he's actually an Iranian director that's most famous for working. He worked for UNICEF as well as a filmmaker. And he worked with children. And I do that. Two of my films are about young children who are 12 or 14. And for me, I saw that a lot of it was you have to almost capture, especially in VR and with Empathy, if someone is unlike you, you have to kind of make them like you. And you know, Paul Blum, I don't even want to get into Paul, I think it's Paul Blum, Against Empathy, I was on a BBC radio with him and I think he's actually pretty cool. and he makes some good points, and his thing was, you know, empathy doesn't always work, it's a bias, because if someone looks like you or feels like you, you're more likely to relate to it. If they're too alien, then in some ways, you don't feel it, right? And so for me, my thing was, how do I get, in VR, you to feel like that other person, even though they're obviously not like you, because they are a refugee, or they have Ebola, they're in Gaza. But there are that commonality of the human experience. Eating, getting your children ready for school, enjoying the sunset. Little things that we all do, you know. And I think VR is more powerful because a lot of these other types of scenarios in regular linear film would seem boring or like a non sequitur or wouldn't work. But somehow in VR, you know with voiceover music or sound like in some ways you start feeling like you're at the dinner table with them and in some ways that could be you. So I think the ordinary experiences is very important. I think a lot of mistakes that people make is to get you to feel empathy they think you need to show them suffering and there's been study after study and Susan Sontag has written the greatest book on this called Regarding the Pain of Others. And I give a talk usually, when I go around, called Representing the Pain of Others, which is the same thing, that just showing someone suffering is not going to build empathy. This is a big, big, big mistake, you know? Because there's a couple of reasons. One is we have a lustful relationship with violence that we don't realize. We all slow down and stop to watch that accident on the highway, but no one's going to help, but we just want to see it, you know? And I think there's a lot of, like, reasons why, whether it's Clockwork Orange or even The Christ myth, you know, a lot of it is there's this like strange sort of like relationship we have with violence that just showing somebody being hurt is not enough. Another reason is we grow numb to it. I mean, because after a while those images just wash over you and they normalize and they end up having a negative effect because then you get used to a world that has those types of things and you think it's normal. And lastly, it can be misused by the other side because if I show a black person being killed, the white person could be very happy. So it depends who's watching it. It can be used by other people. You know, you have to think about empathy in general. It is those, you know, very, as the French say, quotidian, like everyday experiences that really make you connect to them. And then you are surprised. You say, wow, like we're playing soccer. Wow, we're having dinner. Wow, we're in the car. And then they'll tell you a little bit something about their story, about their inner world, and their inner life, that VR does so incredibly well. You know, VR is able to communicate the inner role of, like, a character, and then it just, like, hits you out of nowhere. I think that's the sort of thing that we always try, is to lull you into a way of realizing that you can connect with them just at that kind of ordinary level, and then go in in some sort of points where we do have to tell you that there are some things going on here. Still kind of like bring it back with what the reality is, you know Why I wanted to do this series and work on this was when I had lived for many years in different countries I mean the main reason I wanted to work with the UN and I kept doing it was the people I just felt that the people all over the world in these situations had much greater strength than I felt that people had in the Western world or in the United States and I felt I had something to learn from them. And some of it is like a romanticization because modern society, industrial society, I've read many times the Unabomber's Manifesto. I read it at least a couple of times a year because I always wanted to understand what was happening with technology and everything. When I would read that and I'd say, wow, you know, there's something to people who are still kind of disconnected from that, who suffer and engage with life, that there's a kind of heroism that, you know, you want to respect and do it. And I think what I would always see is people either romanticizing that too much or just showing the problem and not really giving them the dignity. With our VR films and VR strength in general is you're able to build that nuance into it. You're able to show that, you know, they laugh, they joke, they hang out. I mean, a really good example is Ben Solomon, who I really like his work. Not Displaced, I really liked Fight for Fallujah. And in it, he's embedded with people fighting ISIS, I think. something happens and they kind of like jump and people start laughing and this is like in a very serious situation but it felt so real that even though they're in that situation it's not like they're not laughing sometimes or making absurd jokes or being human with each other and I think in the same way when you think of like a refugee or someone who's had Ebola or someone who's you know in Gaza or someone who survived an earthquake we have this very warped perspective of what that is like. And to kind of make it more human and ordinary would make you realize that these are people just like you and I. And we need to help them. That could happen to us. And if we don't do something about it, it's just going to all affect us in some ways. There's no way that we can get out of this cycle of whatever we're going through. I mean, when I started this work, I had no idea the world was going the way it's going. I mean, I had no idea it would have more relevance now than I think it did, because I just thought it was second nature. I'm also from New York, so I'm just like, doesn't everybody love gays? Doesn't everybody love women and want equal rights? I know we all make our mistakes, and we say the wrong words, and we're politically incorrect, or we have to check our privilege. all the other things, but I never expected there to be this incredible turnaround where I feel a lot of these films, and a lot of this work in general, and what these films have inspired, I think, is something that we're gonna need to keep doing. And I just hope we keep doing it in a way that's artistic, that privileges storytelling, and just pushes the medium forward. I mean, just because it's social good doesn't mean we don't have to be as incredible as any of the things that the top auteurs of film do. You know, we have to bring it that same sort of dignity. And I think sometimes that's not done. And I'm trying to push for that more. And that's why I come to places like Sundance, because could there be any other mecca in the world of places that prove that to me with documentary and the other films? Like people say, what should you and VR films be like? And I was like, just like it should be able to get into Sundance. All those films are empathy films to me. Moonlight is the greatest empathy film of all time. I watched Moonlight and I just was like, Wow, and there were elements of like immersion in that too I felt the point of view and other things and I just think at some point We're all gonna merge into that where I hope we just realize that we keep that same sort of artistry and privilege on And and finally, what do you see is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable the ultimate potential. I mean, I think, and I'm not the only one who thinks this, I think virtual reality, and it's no exaggeration, whatever form it will be, and it's accelerating very, very, very rapidly, will alter our relationship to the world the way the telephone, the internet, mobile phones, everything. I do think it's going to have this ability now to give us a sense of presence to be with people that are not in our physical space and connect with them, bring a whole host of new ethical questions as well, but I think it will radically transform what it means to be human and I think there's going to be, like anything, planes can carry people to see their loved ones and they can carry bombs and They're always going to be a double-edged sword to what it is. And so I think its potential will be also negative. It's going to be difficult. I mean, even cinema during World War II is a huge propaganda tool. It's a huge, huge, it's an effective one as well. So, you know, I am very conscious of that, of it being misused for manipulation, but that's why I think it's important that places like the UN and other artists try to tell meaningful, important stories with it, and that they're funded, that they're supported, that they're given a voice. And it's starting to happen, you know? That's what makes me most proud of the work and everyone that's been associated with it, is that I ask myself, what would VR be like without us doing Clouds Over Sidra? It's a thought experiment. Would it have naturally just happened that we'd be talking about the empathy machine? I'm not so sure. I think it would have happened eventually. But would it have happened with the same impact, you know? Because it just caught everybody at the right moment with the right story and the right sort of thing and my works that are coming up are now moving into room scale and interactivity and learning about voice recognition and AI. I mean, I'm just, I'm completely loving it. There's just so much that one can do now that when it merges with VR, because VR will have elements of AI, I'm sure, and Chris Milk's piece here, Life of Us, you know, shows that even there's a social element that can happen. and it's just like you're working with this incredible community and I think it's potential hopefully is that also that it makes us a bit less competitive and a bit more with solidarity and I've seen that with my work. I've seen that with the community in general. Yes, people have business interests and there's a lot of money in VR and there's a lot of other things happening but There is a kindness and a solidarity and a community of like the people who work in it that for me has been my greatest gift. I mean it really is some of my closest friends, some of the brightest minds in the world and I'm almost a thousand percent sure that in the future we'll look back on this as a very unique and special time. not just for cinema, but for technology, but for diplomacy, but somehow with that VR thread going through everything. And no other medium, I think, has been able to straddle Hollywood and tech and diplomacy or humanitarianism. My work comes to the nexus of that in some ways. And I have to meet all those groups, you know, I pay my pilgrimage to San Francisco, I go to LA, you know, we're in New York, you know, at the UN, I go to Washington, and I'm like, wow, I feel this amazing vibe in hybrids happening that I'm almost certain that when you do something like that, new and better innovations and different things come out. And when you have a problem in the future that we wouldn't know how to solve, you already have that network established of like, do we go to the tech thing? Or are we going to go to storytelling? Are we going to lobby here? And all of a sudden, we've somehow built this sort of infrastructure. It's probably the same way when people said, You know, why did we go to the moon? Or why do we do ambitious things? Or what did NASA do? Then you see all these other innovations that come out of it because of the experimentation, like microwaves came out of it or other things like that. I similarly believe that in this sort of community and what we're doing, There's elements of like when AI and other things become, we're going to always be at the forefront of that because they all are to integrate in what we're doing. It's going to constantly be the group that I think can really keep pushing it forward. And that to me, I think is going to be its greatest potential is that community. Awesome.
[00:35:17.106] Kent Bye: Well, thank you so much. Thank you for having me. So that was Gabo Arora. He's the founder of UNVR, as well as LightShedVR, and the director of Clouds of Residra, Waves of Grace, Ground Beneath Her, and My Mother's Wing. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview, is that first of all, I really do think that Gabo was at the right place at the right time, being at the UN and having all the contacts to be able to go to this Za'atari refugee camp with over 80,000 Syrian refugees. And to just have 48 hours to be able to pull off this story in collaboration with Chris Milk and Within, it's quite a feat. Right after this premiered at Sundance, Chris Milk went to give his speech at TED talking about VR as the ultimate empathy machine. And I think that talk just really rippled throughout the VR community, inspired a lot of different people. I know that there's been dozens and dozens of different people that I've interviewed on this podcast that have specifically referenced that piece, as well as VR as the empathy machine. And without that piece, would it have been in the public awareness that that was one of the potentials of VR so quickly? I don't know. I agree that it would have happened eventually, but I think it was just there at the right place in the right time. and really helped inspire the New York Times VR to be able to start and to really take off and a lot of other different VR for good and VR for impact filmmakers. So at Sundance, Oculus was premiering 10 VR for Good pieces that were started about a year ago. They took these filmmakers and matched them up with different nonprofits. And at Sundance, they were premiering them for the first time. HTC also announced their VR for Impact initiative, which has started to donate over $10 million to be able to start to do more of these types of VR for social good experiences. So one of the things that really struck out to me in Gabbo and his background is that he really is at this cross section between these four different cities, the storytelling of Los Angeles, the technology of San Francisco, the humanitarian work that he's been doing at the United Nations, which is based in New York City, and then the diplomacy and public policy that's coming out of Washington, D.C. So his thread of his work has been really combining all these different dimensions and I think that VR is able to bring them all together in a way that is just super impactful. The type of embodied presence that you're able to get within the VR medium I think is able to explore some of these scenes that Gabo says ordinarily would be cut out because they'd just be seen as non sequiturs and not really vital to the overall story. But with VR, when you're able to actually feel like you're sitting down at the table with people as they're eating, then you just get a sense of what it's like to be with them in the ordinary aspects of their life. And going back and looking at clothes at Residra, it's just a lot of that, just showing what was happening around the refugee camp and what different, both men and women were doing, whether it was playing video games in this little room or these teenage girls playing soccer or men weightlifting or wrestling. So it was all these common, ordinary scenes that wouldn't necessarily be as compelling or interesting in a 2D frame, but when you're able to break through that frame and really get a sense of what it feels like to be at one of these camps, and I think that was one of the huge innovations and breakthroughs of the unique affordance of VR to be able to take you to this place and to allow you to build empathy with these characters. And it's also really interesting to hear from Gabo's perspective, how many times people get it wrong in terms of the approach that they're trying to do in terms of building empathy. If you just show suffering without having a larger story, then he says that there's a number of different traps that people can very easily fall into. that if you just show someone else suffering, then that doesn't necessarily automatically build empathy, and that we have this lustful relationship with violence, and that we can have this kind of rubbernecking effect if we are merely showing the pain of other people, and that if we show it too much, then we can actually grow numb to it, and it just becomes normalized in a way, and in a sense kind of backfires. And I think Gabo's right, is that it's not an automatic thing. If you just take the technology to these places and show the suffering, then it's not necessarily gonna have the same impact, that it does have to have this craft of the story. And I think going to Sundance, that's the thing that you really take away is just the power of narrative and story, both in the films that are showing there, but also the VR experiences. I feel like Sundance this year, there was just a lot of innovations in terms of narrative and storytelling and virtual reality that I think is really pushing the medium forward, whether it's a Dear Angelica and the immersive ability to be able to tell stories in a completely new way using Quill and the unique volumetric affordances of VR, or Zero Days VR, which is a immersive documentary that is starting to tell a story through the environment and the visuals. How do you tell the story of an invisible cyber warfare? You can actually take people into VR and show these metaphoric explorations of what that actually feels like. Mayubi, which is by Felix and Paul, they started to really explore what it means to do a 40-minute narrative with a constellation of improv actors that were directed to deliberately disrupt the scene by introducing new dialogue so that everybody that was in that scene could be completely present and reactive, and not just repeating their lines of dialogue, but to actually be present in the moment and authentically reacting. Or Condition 1's Fierce Compassion, which took a c'est une vérité approach of taking you into a heist of an open rescue within this chicken farm that had claimed that they had cage-free chickens, but they actually didn't. So they were documenting some of the illegal claims of some of these meat manufacturers and just really documenting the horrible conditions that were happening there. And so the storytelling within the VR, I think this year at Sundance, it just was taking a number of different steps forward. And I think that some of the experiences that Gabo has been creating has been within a certain formula. And I think he admits that he's trying to break out of that formula. I think the formula has worked up to this point, but I also think that it's kind of still melding in the typical documentary filmmaking style where you're doing voiceovers and storytelling by relying upon the audio that's over voiceover. And I think that the thing that I'm seeing is that the more and more that people can incorporate the dialogue and the audio into more a cinema verite style rather than voiceover, I think some of those that I've seen so far, like the Condition One documentary on Fierce Compassion, that starts to take the level of immersion to the next level. So, like Gabo said, it was a huge hypothesis that VR could be used for good, and I think that Clouds Over Sutra was one of those first data points that was actually getting a lot of really positive impact, not only emotionally from people seeing it, but there was a direct financial impact. There was a projected goal of $2.3 billion that was being trying to raise by the UN Secretary General, and they ended up raising $3.8 billion. And Claude Gervais-Sidre was a part of that. But like Gabo said, it's hard for him to be able to delineate specific cause and effect just because it was a very hot topic. And the VR film was a part of that, but it's hard to measure the direct impact of it based upon a projected number. But in taking the numbers from UNICEF, it was a much more objective result of being able to double the amount of donations that were able to be received, going from one in 12 people donating to one in six people donating, and those people who did donate, donating about 10% more on average per donation. So there was a lot of empirical evidence that Gabbo was receiving in terms of the efficacy of virtual reality. But again, it's not just something that you can just throw the technology at a problem and expect it to get double the amount of donations. I think that the level of storytelling is still a huge part of making an effective experience that could be used to show people the power of VR. Now, the final thing that I just wanted to expand on a little bit was Gabo just saying that, you know, during World War II, film was used as a propaganda device and that he fully expects that VR could be used for good, but it could also be used to disseminate propaganda. So right now, I think there is a level of information warfare that's happening around the world. And I think in the future, we're going to be moving into experiential warfare, using VR to spread all sorts of different types of messages. And I think that is on the horizon. I don't necessarily see that there's anything out there yet that I've seen that I would classify as experiential warfare. But I think given the state of the world, I think it's not too far into the future. There was an amazing documentary that I saw called City of Ghosts. And it was about Raqqa in Syria, where there is the Islamic State, ISIS, taken over. And there is a series of citizen journalists that were rebelling against a lot of the actions of ISIS. And they called themselves RBSS. That's Raqqa is being slaughtered silently. So they were essentially videotaping the atrocities that were happening and putting it out into the world. And, you know, slowly they started to cut off communications and take down all the satellites. So it's essentially like a blacked out part of Syria. But these RBSS citizen journalists were still finding ways to smuggle out footage and get it out into the world. And the big point that they were making in this film is that ISIS is, from the very beginning, using media and propaganda and information warfare to be able to spread their message and recruit people, but also to instill fear in the dissidents, in that they're using violence, but they're also using a very sophisticated amount of information warfare. And that the thing to really counter that is more information warfare, even better information. And I think what RBSS has been doing with getting the information out there as to what's actually happening is a huge part of the resistance to showing the world what's actually happening. So I think that just looking into the future, I think that virtual reality is going to have a huge part of that. It's part of this evolving media ecosystem that as we move forward, it's going to become more and more of an integral part of this information warfare landscape. And so I think that was the key insight from Gabbo was just realizing that, you know, people are still writing a lot of different reports at the United Nations, but there's people like Humans of New York that have this huge social media following. And so it was a big insight for Gabbo to collaborate with Brandon of Humans of New York to do this UN tour. But also think about how could they start to use these new emerging technologies like virtual reality to be able to spread the message of what's happening in the world and how people can take their empathy and to put it into action through compassion. So if you haven't had a chance to check out Cloud Server Sidra yet, I highly recommend it. It's just one of these foundational VR experiences that has helped really shape this time period of virtual reality. But it's also just a very timely topic with all this talk about refugees, especially with all the recent executive orders that have been coming out of the United States administration over the last couple of days. So Chris Milk really popularized this idea that VR is the ultimate empathy machine, in large part because of Clouds of Residue back in March of 2015. And this is an idea that I think goes back to even the previous medium. Roger Ebert, back in 2005, during his Walk of Fame remarks, said that movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie, I can live in somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief. And I think that that's true for film and also I think it's even more powerful with virtual reality just for a number of the reasons that Gabo is talking about. It just gives you that extra sense of embodied presence and can allow you to just really connect to other people on the common ordinary aspects of life. So that's all I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do tell a friend, spread the word, and become a donor. Just a few dollars a month makes a huge difference. So go to patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.