Guest Articles

December 13

Julia Winterflood

Taking a Virtual Trip to the Last Mile: How an Innovative Program is Harnessing Virtual Reality to Advance Progress Toward the SDGs

No longer limited to the world of gaming and entertainment, virtual reality (VR) is now providing immersive experiences involving a wide range of business sectors, from healthcare and education to aviation and defense. Usually viewed with a headset, VR is a computer-generated environment in which the viewer’s focal point is determined by the movements of their head — or even their eyes. The medium also comprises 360-degree video, which is filmed by a camera housing 180-degree forward- and rear-facing lenses that simultaneously capture everything around the device. This footage is then “stitched” together to create 360-degree footage, which can be viewed with a headset or simply on a computer or smartphone screen. When viewed on the latter two, the user’s focal point is controlled by the movement of a cursor or a finger on a touchscreen.   

Boosted by growing global internet access and further fueled by the pandemic, the VR market is the fastest-growing media segment: Valued at US $17.25 billion in 2020, it is projected to reach US $184.66 billion by 2026. Even traditional media companies are experimenting with the technology, and VR documentaries using 360-degree footage have given viewers a visceral new perspective on events such as the Syrian refugee crisis and the Ebola epidemic. As media policy academic Inge Sorensen writes, “VR offers unprecedented immersive and affective ways of engaging with documentary subjects and stories and enables enhanced experiences of and insights into otherwise inaccessible worlds, lives and realities.” 

VR is also starting to find applications in the social impact and global development sectors. To take one example, at the Indonesia-based R&D lab Kopernik, we’re harnessing the immersive power of 360-degree videos to document challenges faced by underserved communities, and to demonstrate how we and other organizations are working to overcome these challenges and achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We believe VR technology has the power to allow all viewers — whether they’re part of the development sector, government or civil society — to experience and gain an understanding of social and environmental challenges and solutions in a way that conventional images or videos cannot. We also believe that through these more immersive and affective experiences, viewers will be more compelled and better equipped to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs. 

Since Kopernik was founded 12 years ago, we have recognized that connecting with wider audiences and effectively delivering messages about the more than 20 different programs we run at any time across Indonesia requires both creativity and innovation. This is why we collaborated with prominent musicians and artists on a campaign to raise awareness of Indonesia’s plastic waste crisis and reduce single-use plastic consumption; produced an internet series early in the pandemic that looked at Balinese community responses to COVID-related income loss; and released a sequential podcast exploring Indonesia’s biggest social ills and their solutions through the songs of one of the country’s most popular rock bands, to name a few examples. 

In addition to these creative ways of delivering messages, connecting with audiences and triggering behavior change, we’ve been using 360-degree videos to enable people to engage more deeply with our projects and fieldwork across Indonesia since 2017. From the sprawling metropolis of Jakarta to the tranquil seas of East Nusa Tenggara, our communications team has wielded omnidirectional cameras to capture myriad social and environmental challenges and solutions. 

Viewers of VR content directed, edited and curated by Kopernik can gaze up at the rubber trees on a plantation in the Indonesian part of Borneo while learning about the harvesting challenges faced by farmers, and the simple technology we have developed to increase rubber yields during the rainy season. They can also observe how members of Kopernik’s Wonder Women program — which develops the business skills of hundreds of women micro-entrepreneurs across the country — are using natural dyes to reduce the environmental impact of the batik production process while increasing the quality and selling price of their products. 

We’ve also curated VR content involving markets outside Indonesia, allowing viewers to witness the impacts of climate change in Fiji; meet a waste recycling community in Cairo; and explore the rural village of Huaichai in Laos, where families are working to overcome malnutrition by improving sanitation and hygiene. The user-controlled, 360-degree view of these locations and their local challenges and solutions is the next best thing to actually being there and experiencing them for ourselves. (If you haven’t experienced this sort of interactive video, just click and drag on the videos at the YouTube links throughout this article and move your cursor around to change your perspective.)  


Leveraging Virtual Reality to Advance the SDGs

Kopernik has also made efforts to share these videos and encourage their use — and the use of VR technology itself — among development organizations, companies, academic institutions, governments and media. For instance, we created the VR for SDGs platform, an easy-to-use digital platform housing videos that can help support the design and development of products, services and solutions to address social, environmental and development challenges. On the site’s SDGs page, users can choose to view videos that are categorized into “Challenges” (problems that need to be addressed to achieve the SDGs) and “Interventions” (development initiatives that are addressing social and environmental challenges). All content on the platform is under a Creative Commons license that allows the videos to be redistributed in their original form with appropriate credits. 

We’ve leveraged this platform to enhance the skills of young Indonesians, by launching our VR for SDGs Fellowship Program, which invited young people across the country to submit videos capturing their most urgent social and environmental concerns. We selected three fellows, and provided them with 360-degree RICOH THETA cameras, as well as training and mentorship sessions on how to produce engaging VR content. The fellows produced nine videos on issues such as traffic congestion and air pollution in Surabaya; the rampant conversion of mangrove forests into shrimp farms in Central Sulawesi; and the health and environmental impacts of informal mining activities. VR for SDGs Fellow Fahmi Adimara commented that “one of the great things from this experience is the ability to inspire my friends and colleagues to become more aware of SDG-related challenges around them.”

We also partnered with UN Volunteers and Ricoh to produce additional VR content. This collaborative campaign called on volunteers working with UN Volunteers to submit standard videos documenting how their work contributes to achieving the SDGs, with the winners receiving THETA cameras. Kopernik then provided training on camera operation and storyboard development, after which these volunteers developed 360-degree videos about the SDG challenges they are tackling in the field, which were edited by Kopernik. 

These videos provided an immersive view of several of the issues the SDGs are addressing. For instance, Namchok Petsaen, a volunteer with United Nations Volunteers Asia and the Pacific, created a VR video to share the experience of navigating Bangkok’s urban infrastructure as a person with a disability. Patsaen, who uses a wheelchair, believes that compared to photos or regular footage, the 360-degree format is far more practical for demonstrating a location’s level of accessibility, such as work environments. During a webinar discussing the VR for SDGs partnership, he noted: “I have to send many photos to show how accessible an office might be [for people with a disability], but when filming with the 360 camera it’s just one shot, and then they can rotate around and see it fully for themselves.” He also stated that 360-degree footage can be used for accessibility audits, and one day could even be part of a platform highlighting accessible destinations for people with a disability, “so we can really see the environment and make sure it is fully accessible for everyone.”


Providing Remote Options for Immersive Learning 

The VR for SDGs videos have so far been used as educational content by more than 20 university programs, companies and development organizations during seminars, workshops and conferences. Among these is the University of Melbourne Social Policy and Development program — an intensive Masters-level program conducted in collaboration with the University of Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, which Kopernik has been part of since 2020. A field visit to Indonesia is usually one of the program’s core components, but with COVID-19 limiting global travel, this was not possible during the last two years. 

In response, Kopernik developed three modules of immersive learning materials on the challenges faced by Indonesian smallholder farmers; the impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods in Bali; and marine plastic pollution and its environmental impacts. To enable the students to experience the feeling of being in the locations where these challenges are most acute, and to deepen their engagement with the learning process, we produced VR videos exploring each topic — an approach that was well-received by the participating students.

Wherever feasible, Kopernik recommends the use of VR headsets to watch our 360-degree content, but as these devices are still relatively uncommon, the videos are most often viewed on smartphones or computers. Even without a VR headset, the ability to determine one’s focal point in a rural Rwandan village, a schoolyard in Belgrade or a cocoa plantation in Papua simply by moving a cursor around a screen makes the viewing experience more interactive and engaging than standard footage. Kopernik encourages all development organizations, governments, academic institutions and social entrepreneurs working towards the achievement of the SDGs to utilize our 360-degree videos in their programs and for communication purposes. With the VR for SDGs platform, now anyone with an internet connection can take a virtual trip to the last mile.


Julia Winterflood is a communications consultant for Kopernik, and a freelance writer, editor and Indonesian-to-English translator.

Photo courtesy of Kopernik.




Social Enterprise, Technology, Telecommunications
climate change, innovation, media and entertainment, recycling, refugees, rural development, SDGs, skill development, telecommunications