Rotary International Tells Immersive Story with VR ‘Empathy Machines’

Author: David McMillin       


Attendees at the 2017 Rotary International Convention use Rotary-branded Google Cardboard viewers to watch a VR film about Rotary’s work to eradicate polio.

No matter how inspirational a keynote speaker may be, telling a story onstage isn’t always enough to connect with attendees. Rotary International’s board of directors opted to go another route — using virtual reality to help the audience at its 2017 Rotary International Convention walk a mile in the shoes of the children the organization serves.

“Virtual reality has been referred to as an ‘empathy machine,’ ” Nora Zei, Rotary International’s senior director of programs and member services, told Convene. “It gives viewers an immersive experience that can invoke compassion and generosity in ways that [traditional video] cannot.”

In January, Rotary began brainstorming possibilities for utilizing VR at its 2017 Convention, held June 10–14 in Atlanta. Rotary had some experience with “I Dream of an Empty War,” a VR documentary released in October 2016, but the board had a bolder vision for the Convention: a simultaneous VR experience. The VR film would convey how Rotary’s work to eradicate polio is increasing stability in the world.

Producing an immersive experience of this nature would require Rotary to tread new territory. “This is a relatively new technology,” Zei said, “and there aren’t a lot of other [event professionals] to talk to about it yet.”

Without a roadmap, Zei and her team spent months of brainstorming, working with an internal creative team, two production teams, and an app developer. After a week-long video shoot in Romania, they produced a three-minute film, “One Small Act,” which simulates the experience of a young boy in war-torn Bosnia in the 1990s.

The film was ready for viewing, but first Zei and her team had to clear a number of unexpected hurdles on site. They hadn’t anticipated the challenges of working with attendees from more than 100 countries whose mobile devices had different operating systems. To watch the video, attendees had to download another mobile app in addition to the convention app.

“There are somewhere around 7,000 different types of Android devices,” Zei said. “We had to become really tech-savvy really quickly to help attendees make sure their devices were ready to go for the viewing.”

Attendees were invited to stop by an Apple Genius Bar–styled VR help area where Rotary staff members could verify that their settings were configured to play the video.

“We really had to work to get attendees to stop by the VR area,” Zei said. “Not surprisingly, most attendees don’t pay a lot of attention to pre-event communications. So, on site, we included communications in the daily newsletter and incentivized them with a pin giveaway in the help area to show they had downloaded the content.”

All that effort paid off. Approximately 2,000 attendees used Rotary-branded Google Cardboard viewers to watch the debut on June 13, including Australian attendee Angus Fraser, who called the film “great.” Fraser said he hoped the film’s “message will open up the world a bit to make people realize there are terrible things happening and there are people trying to help — Rotary being one of the main groups doing that.”

Rotary Plans More VR Experiences

“One Small Act” was well received by Rotary’s audience, but Liz Lapp, Rotary International’s program director, realized that one important accompaniment to the immersive VR experience was missing: a chance to discuss how the film made participants feel.

“Many people had different impressions on what the video meant,” Lapp said, “so it would have been helpful to give them an opportunity to discuss the story.”

Looking ahead, Lapp expects to leverage virtual reality with attendees at more intimate events. “Next year, we plan to continue to use VR at our training events where there are more one-on-one opportunities to have those discussions,” Lapp said. “VR can take individual viewers into another world, but when that experience is over, they want to be able to talk to someone about it. They want to take off their glasses and understand what others saw, too.”

More on empathy machines, DEI

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