Using an ‘Empathy Machine’

Oct 5, 2017, 11:51 AM by David McMillin

Using an - Empathy Machine - newsletter

No matter how inspirational a keynote speaker may be, telling a story on stage isn’t always enough to connect with attendees. Rotary International’s board of directors opted for another route — virtual reality — to help the audience at its 2017 Rotary International Convention walk a mile in the shoes of the children the organization serves. “Virtual reality has been referred to as an ‘empathy machine,’” Nora Zei, Rotary International’s senior director of programs and member services, told Convene. “It gives viewers an immersive experience that can invoke compassion and generosity in ways that [traditional video] cannot.”

This past January, Rotary began brainstorming possibilities for utilizing VR at this year’s annual convention, held June 10–14 in Atlanta. Rotary had some experience with “I Dream of an Empty War,” a VR documentary released in October 2016, but the board had a bolder vision for the annual convention: a simultaneous VR experience uniting the audience. The film would convey how Rotary’s work to eradicate polio is increasing stability in the world.

  Producing an immersive experience of this nature would require Rotary to venture into new territory. “This is a relatively new technology,” Zei said, “and there aren’t a lot of other [event professionals] to talk to about it yet.” So without a roadmap, Zei and her team embarked on months of brainstorming, working with an internal creative team, two production teams, and an app developer. After a week-long video shoot in Romania, they produced a three-minute film, “One Small Act,” which simulated the experience of a young boy in war-torn Bosnia in the 1990s.


The film was ready for viewing, but Zei and her team had to clear a number of unexpected hurdles on site. They hadn’t anticipated the challenges of working with attendees from more than 100 countries whose mobile devices had different operating systems. “There are somewhere around 7,000 different types of Android devices,” Zei said. “We had to become really tech-savvy really quickly to help attendees make sure their devices were ready to go for the viewing.”

When determining how to best accommodate thousands of attendees viewing the video simultaneously, Rotary had to make a “a big decision whether to tell attendees to download the video before the convention or stream it in the moment,” said Liz Lapp, Rotary International’s program director. It was decided to have attendees download the video in an app (separate from and in addition to the convention app). “But that still created some obstacles for us,” she said. “No matter how good the venue Wi-Fi is, that puts an overwhelming amount of traffic on the network.”

Attendees were invited to stop by an Apple Genius Bar–styled VR help area so Rotary staff members could troubleshoot and verify that their settings were configured to play the video. “We really had to work to get attendees to stop by the VR area,” Zei said. “Not surprisingly, most attendees don’t pay a lot of attention to pre-event communications. So, on site, we included communications in the daily newsletter and incentivized them with a pin giveaway in the help area to show they had downloaded the content.”

The help desk was a wise move, but it turned out that where it was situated was less so. Being located in the expo hall and near one of the dining areas presented two challenges. “The expo hall was located in a lower level that made it difficult to get a strong connection,” Lapp said, “and in the dining hall there’s a high concentration of people looking at their mobile devices. In hindsight, it would have been helpful to place the booth in an area with less potential for connectivity challenges.”

In the end, the connectivity challenges were limited to access, not to Rotary’s audience emotionally connecting with the film’s message. Approximately 2,000 attendees used Rotary-branded Google Cardboard viewers to watch the debut on June 13, including Australian attendee Angus Fraser, who said the film was “great.” Fraser said hoped the film’s “message will open up the world a bit to make people realize there are terrible things happening and there are people trying to help — Rotary being one of the main groups doing that.”

As well received as the VR experience was, Rapp realized that they had neglected to add an important piece to accompany the immersive VR experience: a chance to discuss how the film made participants feel. “Many people had different impressions on what the video meant,” she said, “so it would have been helpful to give them an opportunity to discuss the story.”

Looking ahead, Lapp expects to leverage virtual reality with attendees at more intimate events. “Next year, we plan to continue to use VR at our training events where there are more one-on-one opportunities to have those discussions,” Lapp said. “VR can take individual viewers into another world, but when that experience is over, they want to be able to talk to someone about it. They want to take off their glasses and understand what others saw, too.”

It may be that “One Small Act” was open to greater interpretation because it was a silent film. At a typical Rotary International gathering, event materials are translated into five languages to accommodate as many of the attendees as possible. However, the VR experience was on a tight timeline, and that meant there was no room for translating voiceover or closed captioning. So, the video skipped talking altogether. “We didn’t have any dialogue,” Lapp said. “To convey something in three minutes without any dialogue is pretty challenging. The video had to speak for itself.”

 After the convention wrapped up, Rotary’s director of communications added voiceover to the video, and there will be a translation. “It’s evolving and updating,” Lapp said. “The video will change and be able to connect with a larger portion of our core audience.”