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'Ein Trink Mit' the United Nations Virtual Reality Evangelist

DLD brings out a different side of tech.

Vrse.works

At my first DLD, I’ve been struck by how eclectic it is.

There’s the usual fare of VCs, startup hustlers and swooped-in execs. But the tech and media confab, hosted in Munich, also includes artists and humanitarians and lovely weirdos who do not make a living off software.*

Among that set is Gabo Arora, a senior advisor for the U.N., who has become the agency’s in-house virtual reality documentarian and evangelist.

“I’m not a techie,” he admits over drinks. He’s a development economist. But a couple years ago, he reignited an interest in film and partnered with Chris Milk, the D.W. Griffith of VR cinema (minus the racism). The two have created two films for the U.N.

I watched the most recent, “Waves of Grace,” a six-minute short shot in Liberia and produced with Vice and Vrse.works, inside a Samsung Gear headset. It’s powerful stuff. An immersive tour of the sites and lives affected by ebola, the film is narrated with a steady voiceover prayer. It achieves the kind of empathetic connection that Facebook and Google talk about when they wax poetic about the future of virtual reality.

Gabo Arora, special advisor and filmmaker, United Nations
Gabo Arora, special advisor and filmmaker, United Nations

“People have seen it on the news, but I don’t think they get the kind of calm to really explore it,” Arora said, explaining the film’s intent.

The U.N. has used the VR documentaries to influence diplomats and nudge open checkbooks, showing them with the Gear and Google Cardboard. In some places, donations to its partner Unicef more than doubled afterward.

Arora did accept my skepticism of VR — that it’s early and awkward, and that its genesis will come from gaming (or maybe porn) rather than art-house documentaries. Devices are either too cheap to capture film decently or too pricey and clunky to reach wide audiences, he confessed. “I still think it’s cumbersome,” he said of current VR tech. “I don’t think it has had its iPhone moment.”

But it will, he added. And if VR goes mainstream as the next computing platform, as the Internet illuminati firmly believe it will, Arora sees his work as filling up the content bucket for the generation that gets to it first.

“I remember my first CD player, my first disc, every single thing. With my first CD player, I got a free CD from ‘The Wiz.’” he said. “Now imagine a version of that, if you got that free CD, but it was about saving the world. And it was actually pretty good.”

* Unless you count Bavarian regional variations, however, the diversity at this conference does not extend to race and ethnicity.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.