On a Friday night earlier this month in lower Manhattan, a man in his late twenties or early thirties was at a bar with some friends when he spotted a group across the room taking turns wearing a Samsung Gear VR headset.
Having never watched something in virtual reality, the man asked the group if he could give it a try. After setting down his drink and putting on the headset, he explored his new world by standing in place and turning in circles. He expected to ride a VR roller coaster like he’d heard about somewhere. Instead, the headset transported the man to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, where he met a young girl named Sidra and her family after they fled the ongoing war back home.
When the man took off the headset a few minutes later, there were tears on his face. He said he needed a moment. He’d heard so much about the Syrian war and refugee crisis in the news, but this felt completely different. It felt real. He asked the group: How could he help?
The movie he watched was “Clouds Over Sidra,” a 360-degree documentary directed by United Nations Creative Director and Senior Advisor Gabo Arora, which he created with the filmmaker Chris Milk. The film represents the power of VR to make viewers feel closer than ever to far away people, places and problems.
“People want to actually know who it is that they’ll actually be helping, what is their story and how they can have an actual relationship with them,” Arora said in an interview. “I think that’s where VR has been really terrific, because it bridges the gap that I think otherwise numbers and statistics make just guilt-tripping. This is the first time they can actually feel like they can actually go into that person’s space. They can sit with them, they can understand.”
Arora added: “I know it’s crazy—it’s virtual reality, it’s not reality—but I think there’s something about it that makes people feel it’s truer and more authentic.”