The Power of VR Storytelling
By Neill Coleman
This article first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Change Agent.
In the Indian village of Laliya, a few miles from the border with Nepal, a woman named Kusum is building a better future for herself and her daughter Shraddha through the beauty salon she owns and operates. For years Kusum had dreamed of being an entrepreneur and beautician, but she could not confidently start a business due to inconsistent electricity from the national grid. Laliya was one of 44,000 Indian villages without regular access to electricity. Then in 2015 a new solar-powered mini-grid brought the option of reliable electricity to the village. Kusum leaped at the chance to open her salon, which she named for her daughter. Now Kusum can confidently offer her clients energy-dependent services, including waxing, curling and hair-drying. She is realizing her dream and is proud to be a role-model for Shraddha.
This story of empowering women and alleviating poverty makes a compelling case for the philanthropic initiative that brought solar electricity to Kusum’s village – Smart Power India. The Rockefeller Foundation funds the initiative, hoping to build solar mini-grids in 1,000 Indian villages. Rockefeller wants to encourage other funders and the private sector to join this effort and expand it even further. Meeting people like Kusum and hearing their stories is powerfully persuasive.
However, getting to Laliya is a six-hour trip from Lucknow on bumpy, congested roads. Some villages in the program are even more remote, requiring a boat ride. Persuading a busy funder or business investor to take such a trip is a hard sell. So The Rockefeller Foundation decided to bring the village to them –using virtual reality technology.
The Foundation’s grantee in this project was Matter Unlimited, a strategy and creative agency that works with organizations to drive positive change in the world. It uses virtual reality (VR), augmented reality and immersive experiences as tools to spark empathy and action.
In May of 2016 I joined the Matter Unlimited team in Laliya, where I met Kusum and other villagers using solar electricity for their small businesses. Over a few days the team filmed eight scenes. They included Kusum’s beauty shop; a new irrigation pump in a farmer’s field; a snack shop whose owner can now serve refrigerated drinks; a sewing shop whose increased output is creating new jobs; and a computer class at a girls school. The result was “Power in Hand,” the fourth VR film in Matter Unlimited’s Emmy-nominated “Inside Impact” series. (You can watch it at rockefellerfoundation.org/powerinhand).
In July we road-tested “Power in Hand” during The Rockefeller Foundation all-staff week. In addition to gaining valuable feedback, sharing the film with colleagues was a great internal mission motivator, especially for staffers who rarely travel to meet grantees. Staff working in the accounting or investments or IT offices could make a visceral connection to the foundation’s work. After the film, a survey of staffers asked “how do you feel?” and the most common responses were “inspired” and “awesome.” They said the most compelling features were: “Personal stories brought to life,” “The fact that the story was centered on individuals and how their lives have changed,” and “360 view to feel that you are actually in the area.”
From colleagues who work in programmatic roles and do travel more often, there were lots of suggestions that their program funding area would also be a great match for a VR film.
In September, Rockefeller shared “Power in Hand” with potential funders and partners at the Social Good Summit during the week of the UN General Assembly. Going forward, the Foundation will target conferences and events attended by energy investors and funders. These conferences might occur at hotels in Delhi, London or Palo Alto, but with a VR headset, the potential funders can be transported to rural India.
Screenings of “Power in Hand” will also help answer some key questions: is VR more effective than a regular video? And, if so, is it worth the additional time, logistics, and expense? Other research and experience provide some early, but encouraging, answers to those questions.
In research on empathy, a Stanford University study  of immersive virtual environments showed they successfully promoted pro-environment behaviors. People used 20 percent less paper after cutting down a virtual tree. And one week after the virtual experience, participants showed improved environmental behaviors compared to those exposed only to print and video messages.
The United Nations has seen increased funding commitments due to VR. One in six people donated to Unicef in New Zealand after watching the UN VR film, Clouds over Sidra, about a Syrian refugee in Jordan. That was twice the normal rate of support. 
Perhaps you are considering whether your organization or cause could benefit from a VR experience. Here are three factors to help you decide.
- Audience. As always with storytelling for impact, think about your target audience. Who are they? What action do you want them to take? Is building empathy particularly important to encouraging this action? Are they likely to be familiar with VR, intrigued by it, or be suspicious of it? Finally, is there an efficient way to reach your audience using VR (such as a conference with a room set aside with headsets)?
- Accessibility. Is there a dynamic to your story that’s not easily accessible? It could involve physical accessibility, as with rural India or a refugee camp. Or it could be emotional accessibility for some audience members. For example, Planned Parenthood produced a VR film, Across the Line, that gave viewers a direct experience of harassment outside a Planned Parenthood health center. Some had never been to such a clinic or considered how frightening such harassment could be.
- Assessment. Do you have a way to measure the desired impact? That might be fundraising, or a specific action taken by the audience. Since VR is a relatively new technology, metrics will be important to justify the cost and respond to potential internal skepticism.
While the technology is new, Virtual Reality employs characteristics that have made stories powerful for millennia: being in someone else’s shoes and being transported to another place. But VR does this with greater intensity. And it still has an element of novelty, which can help draw crowds and spark conversation. That makes it a tool to consider for an audience or topic where an extra boost of empathy, or some additional intrigue or sizzle, could be just what your story needs to move the response from applause to action.