Virtual Reality Bites: Using Technology to Bring Post-Conflict Situations to Life
Put on a headset at the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), and suddenly you are on a rooftop in Iraq, walking perilously close to the edge. You notice the return of life to the conflict-ravaged remains of the old city section of Mosul in front of you, to the left, to the right, above and below. Next, you are in front of the bombed out shell of a library building at Mosul university. To your surprise, it is bustling with life, as young students mill about the quad. Now, you’re moving in a white UN jeep along a bumpy road through the rubble, stopping at a rebuilt souk, filled with vendors hawking jewelry and spices. Many of them look directly at you, disarming you in the process.
Post-ISIL Iraq is just one of the places you can explore in the Virtual Reality (VR) films created by the Innovation Cell of DPPA. The Cell, part of the Policy and Mediation Division (PMD), helps the Department and its field presences explore new technologies in conflict prevention, mediation and peacebuilding.
Virtual Reality (VR) is a digital three-dimensional experience that uses computer-generated or 360-degree real world video footage. It provides an immersive experience and a sense of being on the ground. In the peace context, it can be used as a kind of training simulator, helping would-be mediators gain experience of potential real-life situations by positing hypothetical scenarios. Or it can raise awareness of conflict issues, allowing users to gain an understanding of what would otherwise be an alien situation. It can support decision making, and provide action-oriented early warning. UN officials and Member State delegations can experience situations they are deliberating upon without concerns over safety, cost and logistics.
Could VR films be the future of mediation, peacebuilding and conflict prevention? A useful corollary to that question, given its immersive aspect, is to ask what role empathy should play — if any — in peacebuilding. The Innovation Cell has asked that question before, to behavioral scientist Andres Casas, on the role of human psychology in the success, or failure, of peace agreements. In the same vein, virtual reality can be a way to inform policy makers on the latest updates in post-conflict situations in a more vivid and compelling way than, say, a report or background paper.
The Innovation Cell team set out to use virtual reality films to brief Security Council members on the subjects and situations brought to their attention. The Cell’s first project took them to Iraq; earlier this year, they traveled to the newly opened United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS).
In 2019, a DPPA team, including Political Affairs Officer, Daanish Masood Alavi, traveled to Iraq to work with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). Together, the team went to Mosul, Erbil and a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Salamyiah, Iraq. DPPA released the very first in-house produced VR experience Iraq 360, a project that captures powerful scenes of the architectural destruction caused by conflict that ravaged the country for years. It walks viewers through meetings with parliamentary representatives and other politicians, as well as conversations with students and IDPs.
Upon their return to New York, the team edited the nine-minute film in 12 days and presented it to Security Council members who gathered at the German Mission to the UN during the German Presidency in April 2019. “We received a lot of positive feedback from Council members, who encouraged us to expand this work of creative storytelling”, said Masood. “Many of the Council’s Iraq experts we showed the film to thanked us and told us that this was ‘the closest’ they’d ever been to the country”, he said.
In early 2021, Innovation Cell staff traveled to Sudan to DPPA’s new Special Political Mission, UNITAMS, and collaborated with Mission colleagues on storyboard development, filming, and post-production. The result was Sudan Now, a 360-degree virtual reality video, which allows viewers to experience the activities of UNITAMS in an immersive manner.
Naoko Takahashi Taymanov, Political Affairs Officer at the Innovation Cell, used to live in Sudan, and was the lead filmmaker on the project. “This experience helped us capture real scenes from the lives of Sudanese people”, she told Politically Speaking. “It tries to present people as they are, without any framing, editors or filters, because when a 360-degree camera is used, nothing can be hidden or concealed from the audience.”
Rula Hinedi, Public Information Officer at UNITAMS, supported the making of the film, working with DPPA colleagues on the post-production stage and assisting with the script. “The viewer travels virtually to both Khartoum and Darfur to meet with representatives of the Transitional Government of Sudan, civil society activists, young Sudanese people, and even internally displaced persons”, said Hinedi, “and really gets to experience the day-to-day activities of UNITAMS in an immersive manner, almost as though they were there. They even watch young Sudanese women playing football in a local stadium”.
Once the video has been translated into Arabic, Hinedi is planning to present it to students at the University in Khartoum, so that they can gain a better understanding of the work of the Mission. After that, she said that there will be a series of outreach activities across the country, which will include presentations to political parties, civil society, women’s and youth organizations, and more.
Several Security Council members who watched the resulting video commended the initiative, noting that as briefing material, it enhanced their understanding of the situation on the ground. “It’s important to learn about the natural environment where the Mission operates, and this VR helped me to better understand challenges in the local livelihood,” Ivan Khoroshev, a Counsellor at the Russian Federation’s Mission noted, adding that the VR meeting with civil society members “was such an energetic, warm moment. We really need to see this positivity.”
Elena Curzio Vila, Expert at Permanent Mission of Mexico, meanwhile, said it was interesting to be instantly transported to Darfur and sit among Sudanese people. She said she looked forward to finding out more about DPPA’s work using the VR format.
The future is virtual
There are several new VR projects in the pipeline. The Innovation Cell recently completed a storified VR version of the report of the Secretary General on the State of Global Peace and Security. The film is a way of visualizing complex information, transforming pages of text into images and charts. In close cooperation with the UN Verification Mission in Colombia (UNVMC) and the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen (OSESGY), DPPA is also producing VR films on the situations in Colombia and Yemen, to be used as potential briefing material for the Security Council. The Yemen film focuses on state fragility, and how humanitarian concerns, development, peace and security overlap. The Colombia initiative is a three-episode project on the peace process in that country, focusing on reintegration, security, and transitional justice.
“Not only are we expanding the capabilities of DPPA and its field missions, we are also teaming up with the growing community of local VR filmmakers. This helps us tell stories more authentically”, Martin Waehlisch from the Innovation Cell told Politically Speaking. “This is not about replacing in-person encounters but adding additional instruments to diplomatic practice,” he added. “VR has become more broadly available and affordable. We are just at the beginning of exploring the power of VR for strategic decision-making and will see new technological advancements in the near future.”
To find out more about DPPA’s innovation work, visit https://futuringpeace.org/.