The towers of Midtown Manhattan sparkled in the distance as I sat across a gleaming desk from Bill Clinton. Bill (I can call him Bill, right?) smiled—I thought, man, that vegan diet is working for him!—as he began telling me, in that signature hoarse voice, about his foundation’s work in East Africa.
Within a few minutes, I could see that work for myself. I blinked and found myself standing in the middle of a busy market, where I’d be introduced by Clinton to local entrepreneurs. I looked to the left at motorcycles whizzing by, and then down at the colorful blankets functioning as temporary stores. I could almost smell the meats being grilled by street vendors to my right.
This was just a taste of a new VR experience created for the Clinton Foundation that will debut as part of the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting this weekend. The film was shot in 360 video by Matter Unlimited and Felix & Paul Studios, who accompanied Clinton and his daughter Chelsea to several African countries in addition to capturing Clinton at his desk.
I got to try the eight-minute experience yesterday on a Samsung Gear VR headset at Oculus Connect, the developer conference for Oculus and testing ground for hundreds of new VR experiences. And even though tons of new VR apps and games were revealed at this year’s conference, what’s notable here is that this was one of several experiences in an emerging field of non-entertainment uses for VR. And it was maybe even more powerful than playing Minecraft.
While we’re no strangers to these type of emotional videos eliciting contributions for charities, there is something more engaging about this approach. This type of immersive experience is less about slick production and fancy editing than it is about simply dropping you into the middle of a real-life experience. For example, in the Clinton video you see how children learn in a schoolyard in Nairobi, with chickens strutting around you.
Virtual reality might be powerful enough to inspire a fellow world leader to become more politically involved with the foundation’s work, or perhaps spur a flush funder to make a significant financial contribution. It’s also a great reporting tool: Especially in the nonprofit field, it’s critical to be able to show impact to donors, grantmakers, and other potential supporters. Clinton might have said it best in a statement to the Associated Press: “The ability of technology like this to bring people together from around the world has the potential to encourage everyone, no matter where they are, to be more engaged in global issues and how to solve them.” I immediately thought of some of the biggest humanitarian issues facing the world today—the refugee crisis, homelessness—and wondered if VR might be able to play an important role.
Being transported to a school in Nairobi was one thing, but I have to say that I was incredibly moved just sitting in Clinton’s office. There was something about being in his personal space, reading the titles of the books on his desk, and turning my head to see his awards lined up along the windowsill. Clinton had personally invited me into his office to talk about his work, and I couldn’t help but listen.
Follow the author at @awalkerinLA