Five VR Experiences that Impacted the World in 2018

Rachel Henderson

Virtual reality (VR) has many valuable applications and is becoming increasingly popular as a marketing and branding tool. Often referred to as an ‘empathy machine,’ VR films can be an excellent tool for cause marketing campaigns because they have the power to create strong emotional connections with its audiences, change attitudes, actions and policies that shape our world.

Here are five of my favorite VR experiences of 2018, which address some of the most important issues of our time and shows what PR and marketing professionals can learn from them.

1. Carne y arena (Flesh and Sand)

Alejandro González Iñárritu

Carne y arena is a virtual reality project written and directed by renowned Hollywood director Alejandro González Iñárritu that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017. The VR experience forces you to walk barefoot in the dirt in a large dark room to heighten your senses while watching the VR film. This makes the viewer feel as if they are a migrant as they are entering the United States through the desert. After participating in the film, viewers are directed to walk through a long hallway exhibit of real-life stories from migrants about where they are from and why the fled to the U.S. Relevant to public discourse now more than ever, it is a powerful reminder of human survival, cruelty and fear in our most vulnerable state.

It is no accident that the film exhibited in our Nation’s Capital for over six months last year while elected officials debate border security policies. The film’s organizers undoubtedly understand that an issue like migration is often debated in rooms and venues in Washington by people who are not themselves migrants. This is why this VR film is so powerful – it tricks the viewer into feeling like they themselves are the migrant. It can help build understanding and help shape new attitudes about migration. The experience was awarded the first Special Achievement Academy Award in over 20 years by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

2. Space Explorers VR Series

Felix & Paul Studios

Who doesn’t want to go to space? Emmy Award-winning Felix & Paul Studios’ two-part documentary VR series Space Explorers helps viewers do exactly that. When few people will have the rare opportunity to become an astronaut and travel to space, Space Explorers gives us all a very real taste of what it might be like.

Debuting A New Dawn at Sundance, the filmmakers partnered with NASA to give viewers an inside look at how astronauts train and prepare for their travel up to space. In this VR experience, you float alongside astronauts as they train in underwater simulations of space. In part two called Taking Flight, released this past summer, viewers are transported to space and float alongside astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS).

3. Tree

Winslow Porter & Milica Zec, New Reality Company

Tree is a critically-acclaimed virtual reality experience where viewers personally experience what it is like to be a giant rainforest tree. Tree was the recipient of an Unreal DevGrant and HTC Vive’s “VR For Impact” grant, created in partnership with the Rainforest Alliance to educate viewers about the difficult realities of deforestation.

Filmmakers wanted to make deforestation appear as something deeply personal. Because viewers are the tree, you see how you are chopped down. They create an intimate, solitary experience that is intended to increase the viewer’s respect for nature. It’s also a very timely issue – according to NASA, at our current pace of deforestation, all of our rainforests will be gone by 2100.

Tree premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 before heading to Tribeca, TED, Cannes, AFI Fest and XR for Change Summit, just to name a few. It’s now screening at IMAX VR Centres in Los Angeles, New York and Toronto.

4. Into the Now

Michael Muller & RSA Films

Director and legendary photographer Michael Muller’s lifelong fear of sharks eventually led him to discover the tranquility and beauty that is possible underwater in Into the Now. For anyone fascinated by, or fearful of, sharks, this stunning VR documentary explores marine life from the safety of one’s headset – because you feel like you are swimming alongside sharks.

Into the Now not only makes a strong emotional and practical case for protecting our oceans and marine life, it also makes a strong case for the use of VR to combat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or phobias. Research has shown that VR can provide relief for patients who are put in controlled high stress situations, because it can transport them to a stressful memory or situation over and over again until their triggers no longer produce anxiety. Psychiatrists call this process habituation – through repetition, the stressful memory or experience is slowly reduced of its power over the patient.

5. This is Climate Change VR Series

Participant Media & Condition One

Flying through the air in a helicopter with firefighters fighting California wildfires, I could not look away at the tragic destruction of our planet in the VR experience, Fire. This is just one of four experiences viewers can have through the virtual reality series, This is Climate Change by Danfung Dennis and Eric Strauss of Condition One.

In Melting Ice, Al Gore takes viewers to glaciers on the verge of collapse. Feast drops viewers into Brazil’s rainforests and Famine transports you to Somalia, in the midst of extreme drought and growing refugee camps. This is the true storytelling power of VR – to transport the viewer to a world they might not otherwise encounter, revealing dramatic experiences that challenge you to think differently about the world around us.

If you have the opportunity to experience even a few of my top five cause marketing VR films, PR and marketing professionals can learn a few key things:

  • VR creates an emotional connection between the viewer and the brand: Research has shown that VR experiences, which build a story around an emotional component, result in a stronger emotional connection with the consumer and the brand/organization/issue.
  • Understand your audience: Each of the film’s creators were very intentional about creating content that would connect with their target audience. They took the time to know their audiences’ habits, beliefs and activities. And then they set out to execute a campaign to meet their audiences where they are – online and offline – to build strong engagement. VR doesn’t just live in a headset – you need to build a 360-degree campaign to promote the film and drive the results you want on and off the screen.
  • Be laser-focused on how VR can help reach your goals: Are you trying to build more meaningful relationships with your consumers? Are you trying to raise money? Are you aiming to build online buzz and media attention for your issue? Depending on your goals, create a VR experience and build an integrated marketing communications plan to support them. When your campaign is complete, you’ll be able to look back and better evaluate your success.