AR for Empathy: The Devastation of War

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Even before the invention of photography, artists sought to recreate the horrors of war in pictures. Now technology makes it possible to take that rendering a step further, immersing the viewer directly in the experience with the use of AR

On March 7, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced the release of a free AR app for iOS called “Enter the Room,” The app is the product of a collaboration between ICRC and the French digital innovation agency Nedd, working with Apple's ARKit Technology. The user experiencestarts by holding up the phone to see a virtual door to a child's bedroom. Once you enter that room, you'd feel “as if you were really there.” Then you see what impact war has on the next four years of her life.

Watch the video above.

The project's lead, Ariel Rubin, ICRC's Head of Digital Content, explained the intent behind utilizing AR:

"We want to humanize war, we want people to look at war not from their comfort zones or through the distance of a news article. We want to generate empathy towards the millions of people who face war every day, a reality which we, at ICRC, bear witness far too often. Immersive tech like mobile AR can really remove those barriers to understanding and empathizing in a really powerful and immediate way."

Although it's not possible to “recreate the cruel reality of how it must feel” for a child to suffer through the effects of war, he said, “we want to get as close as possible to make people see that this should never be accepted.”

I asked if the experience is meant to push a particular call to action, possibly to raise money for the cause. Rubin insisted that it is not intended to “a fund-raising tool but an awareness-raising new technology that our organization wants to harness to reach as many people as possible with our message.”

The awareness could “open up important opportunities for dialogue about some of our core work and values particularly in relation to urban warfare, and the breakdown of everyday services and systems as a result of conflict,” he said.

What about concerns about manipulation, as we see for faked images that are sometimes shared on social media and even on news outlets to garner sympathy for one side over another in a conflict? Rubin answered: “We are aware of these kind of manipulations. However, since we are a neutral, impartial, and independent humanitarian organization we are doing our utmost to only use verified facts and imaginary for any kind of our internal and external communication.”

In response to my question on feedback, Rubin said it “has been really positive.” He added, “I'd say the biggest criticism we've gotten thus far is not having a version ready for Android.” Speaking of that, he admitted that they don't yet have plans to bring it Android, although it was not ruled out — particularly if this version of the app indicates it is warranted.

You can see a few of the reactions captured on video here:

Even if there is no Android version forthcoming, the ICRC is doing other work “in partnership with Google,” Rubin said. He describes it as “an important VR project coming up later this year.”

This would be distinct from the AR experience of “Enter the Room.” He explained the differences between AR and VR as follows: “Virtual is deep, immersive and individualistic; whereas augmented is more of a shared experience because you can hold up a phone and show it to other people.”

He doesn't want to be limited to just one form, he said. “I think it's important we try out all these technologies to see which one suits our audience the best.”

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