Sustainability, meet Virtual Reality

Here's the question: is there a legitimate role that virtual reality can play in sustainability communications?

To answer that question I want to take you on a journey back to the origin of the majority of the world's cocoa: Cote d'Ivoire. The magical bean is the backbone of its economy. It's produced throughout the country by millions of small-holder farmers. But these farmers face serious problems; they're getting older, their yields are decreasing with poor soil quality and aging trees, access to clean water and education is limited, child labour is common and poverty is a reality for many. So it's no wonder that Barry Callebaut, the world's biggest cocoa company, is taking sustainability seriously; their very business depends on it. But sustainable cocoa will never become mainstream unless the brands they supply start demanding more of it. So Barry Callebaut set us a challenge: how could we help their customers see the value in sustainable cocoa? We didn't just want them to see the difference sustainability makes, we wanted them to experience it. But flying all of their customers to Cote d’Ivoire would have been expensive and not particularly sustainable, so we turned to Virtual Reality instead.

The 360 film - ‘The Magnificent Adventure: Cocoa’ - takes the audience on an immersive journey right into the heart of the Cote d'Ivoire. It follows the process of growing, harvesting, fermenting and drying the beans. The film explores the community side of cocoa farming too, visiting the schools and communities that rely on a plentiful harvest of pods. The film gives cocoa buyers a real sense of the difference sustainable practices make on the ground; as if they were there themselves.

Last month, the film debuted at the 2017 ISM in Cologne - the confectionery industry’s largest annual event - where eager cocoa buyers watched the film on ‘Choculous Rift’ headsets (see what we did there?!)

The experience received brilliant reviews, but the production wasn’t a cake walk; we learnt a lot about VR and sustainability communications in the process.

Breaking down sustainability barriers

I’ll start with a positive. One of the biggest barriers we face as communicators is the spatial and temporal dislocation that sustainability presents. We are normally tasked with targeting audiences in developed nations to bring about political or corporate change, yet the impacts are often felt halfway around the world in locations like the Cote d’Ivoire or the Arctic Circle. To make matters more complex, issues like climate change require us to take action now to avert the worst effects in a distant future. The result? Too often sustainability doesn’t feel urgent or tangible. And this is what is so exciting about VR. It gives us the ability to transport audiences to different times and locations to help them empathise with distant issues. Which we believe has the power to encourage people to take action, today. So that’s the theory, but what about the reality of 360 film production?

What you see is what you get

You have to be prepared to give audiences a raw, unfiltered view of reality. Unlike conventional filming or photography, there are fewer tricks to exaggerate a crowd, or to hide something you would rather your audience didn't see. So it's a wonderful tool for transparency, but it doesn't always present the picture-perfect view your PR team might prefer.

Movement matters

A static landscape will quickly get boring for a viewer. It's important that you curate scenes that are full of movement around the camera - like a bustling market or a farmer's field during harvest. Moving the camera, by mounting it to a vehicle or dolly, also helps to make the scene more engaging, but can result in motion sickness. Our advice: try and get out of a conventional film production mindset; see it more as a theatre production.

Forget the detail

For one scene we had to film a water irrigation system. The problem is that 360 camera rigs use wide angle lenses, so most of the detail in the scene is lost. To get around this we decided to use motion graphics to help illustrate how the system worked. But in general we would recommend avoiding scenes that rely on detail.

Technological limitations

360 cameras and VR headsets are still in their infancy. The sharpness of the image isn't as crisp as we've grown accustomed to with high definition displays. But things are improving, fast. Just don't expect too much at this point in time.

Reach is limited

The reality is, most people don't have access to good VR headsets. We found distributing custom Google Cardboard headsets to be a simple way of widening the audience. But VR still isn't a mass audience medium.

Don't forget the story

Too often we see 360 films that completely lack a story. The novelty factor will only hold someone’s interest for a matter of seconds. So to hold the attention of the audience make sure there is an engaging narrative that both informs and entertains.

In Summary

The reality is that virtual reality isn’t right for most communication projects. But to help you consider whether it’s right for you, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Do you have a small, high-value audience that you can target at events or face-to-face meetings?
  2. Will VR give your audience a unique experience they wouldn’t normally be able to do?

If you answer yes to both the questions above then maybe, just maybe, virtual reality might be right for you.