‘Frontline Humanitarian Toolbox’: How virtual reality films could serve a philanthropic purpose

Quite simply, what is interactive film?

For some, it’s a gaming experience, as evidenced by the 1980s Laserdisc classic Dragon’s Lair or more recent movie-meets-game experiences such as Final Fantasy. For others, it’s a high-art, experimental form of cinema as initially envisaged by its ill-fated Czech originator. Brooker’s film probably sits somewhere between the two. For our CEO and filmmaker, Mike Todd, a self-­confessed Dragon’s Lair fan, it’s about something much more tangible and somewhat unexpected – saving lives in the Middle East.

Saving lives through video

We are launching a new interactive video, developed alongside the World Health Organisation, at South by Southwest festival in Texas. Mike is also the director and creative mind behind Frontline Humanitarian Toolbox, an interactive virtual reality movie shot in Jordan and developed by his production house Near-Life in partnership with the Norwegian Council for Refugees, Syrian NGO Spirit and the Red Crescent.

The film has become a vital educational tool for aid workers in Syria, where violence and now Covid-19 have rendered traditional training methods all but impossible.

Learning through experience

In its simplest terms, the project is an interactive movie that uses a VR headset and role-play to prepare aid workers for the many challenges they could come across in the field. Hostile roadblocks and roadside ambushes can all be replicated in an entirely safe and Covid-secure environment where, crucially, wrong decisions can be replayed.

While the attention to detail in the movie is clear, and the advantages of donning a VR headset to experience situations that may not offer a second chance in real life are undeniable, do the users of our tool ever find it a little frivolous? After all, it could be seen as a video game being used to deal with what can be a terrifying reality.

“Actually, we’ve never had that,” Todd says.

“On the contrary, I think digital and remote learning is usually seen as something rather downbeat and dull, and this was something more vivid and realistic. We could have just filmed a scenario and then said: ‘What would you do in this situation?’ But I think this kind of gameplay experience really hits home, and we’ve only ever had positive responses.”

Todd says despite the surface similarities, this interactive movie is a very different experience from those we may already be familiar with.

Virtual reality on the rise

Todd modestly admits that we’re among the first to widely use VR and interactive video technology in this context, but he’s confident we’ll see plenty more in future. Near-Life™ has recently launched an online tool that allows organisations to build their own interactive videos, while the focus of our new interactive video is on security training for emergency medical teams. It has already attracted interest from a number of aid organisations working in the Middle East.

Read the full article on The National.

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