Advancing Causes: The Role of VR & AR


When Karim Ben Khelifa envisioned The Enemy, a multi platform augmented reality and virtual reality experience, he was seeking an answer to the question “Is it possible to invent a new way to make the audience care, to have them think more deeply about war?”. Through his journey, he discovered that humanizing combatants can change perspectives, by making the invisible enemy into a visible human being, with hopes, dreams and motives. An early iteration separately interviews two combatants, from Israel and Palestine. Through an AR/VR interface, the audience, and even the interviewees themselves, where then able to see and meet with their “enemy”. Khelifa indicated that the most surprising thing for individuals going through this experience, are that the similarities vastly outweigh the differences between the two parties.  The Enemy is an active project that will continue to explore the counterparts from a number of war torn environments.

“When you meet your enemy, they cease to be your enemy.”

The Enemy is just one example of how virtual reality and augmented reality technologies can be used to build awareness, empathy and connection in advancing causes. At SXSW 2017, the panel Non-Profits Get the Keys to the VR Kingdom  brought together several individuals actively engaged in crafting VR content for non-profit organizations. The panel were able to share a number of stories, successes and recommendations.

Shannon Carroll of Vivid Story, a creative studio championing social impact, shot a VR story for the CARE program in Niger, West Africa. The CARE program is a village savings and loans association that is focused on lifting women and children out of poverty. Over the course of seven days, Carroll shot a short VR experience telling an emotional, intimate story of a family that had been able to rise out of poverty through this program. Virtual reality allows both powerful story telling and deep connection with the subject. By immersing the audience in an individuals reality and creating an environment where you can get to know the subject, then providing them with the solution to the challenges, you can move beyond empathy to action.

care program

Elliot Dillman of Reel FX. also featured on the panel, took another approach. His challenge was using VR to promote the Harmony project. At the time of filming, 68% of schools in Los Angeles county didn’t offer instrumental music opportunities to their students. Music has been demonstrated to increase children’s learning capacity, as well as providing emotional and social value. Dillman’s film followed a boy involved in a drum line, who also had a dream of flying. After introducing the core subject, they filmed the young man’s first flying experience in a helicopter, and culminated in a group performance of over 500 students in the Harmony project. Beyond the connection element, the flying experience added an uplifting and exciting factor to the VR experience. Dillman wanted to excite and engage people, while also advancing the cause of the Harmony project.


Virtual reality and augmented reality offer a unique experience, that goes beyond traditional film making. By being able to fully immerse your audience within the environment of the subject matter, you are creating unique opportunities for connection. Telling a strong personal story and driving a sense of presence versus the illusion of separation is extremely powerful.

The average length of a VR film is six minutes. Carroll recommends spending 30% of the time explaining the problem – bring people into the movement and then inspire them with the solution. Don’t get too involved in personal details – focus on the core story. As with any film project, know your audience and craft the experience accordingly. Is the goal to thank sponsors? To inspire new sponsors? To disrupt conceptions? Each goal inspires a different experience in order to be effective.

Accessibility remains a challenge in using VR or AR to advance causes – one way The Enemy project is addressing this is to translate the experiences to be effective when using mobile phones – you may still be able to sign up as a mobile platform tester here. Google Cardboard is also a low cost viewer that can be branded and make VR experiences available to the masses.


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