Researcher Blog by Jonathan Saunders and Helen Grantham of CENTRIC: Unpacked Refugee and Virtual Reality at UNICEF Headquarters in New York
About the authors
Jonathan Saunders is a researcher and developer based in C3RI’s Centre for Excellence in Terrorism, Resilience, Intelligence and Organised Crime Research (CENTRIC). Jonathan’s research focuses on the development of mobile, PC and serious games. He is currently working on the AUGGMED program as a serious games developer working with virtual and mixed reality solutions to remote, multi-agency training scenarios.
Helen Grantham is Projects Researcher based in CENTRIC. Helen undertakes research and project management for a number of current CENTRIC projects.
The CENTRIC team recently collaborated with the creators of Unpacked Refugee, a multi-media artwork seeking to humanise the word ‘refugee’, for a special exhibition at UNICEF Headquarters New York. In this post, Jonathan and Helen discuss the effects of adding an immersive, virtual reality experience to this powerful artwork.
The Unpacked Refugee exhibit is a multi-media installation designed to humanise the word ‘refugee’. Created by artist and architect Mohamad Hafez and writer and speaker Ahmed Badr, the installation recreates the homes left behind by real refugees fleeing the ravages of war. Building on our project work with the United Nations International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the VR team in CENTRIC were asked to create a virtual reality (VR) immersive experience of the exhibition. We were invited to showcase Unpacked VR as part of the International Migrants Day event at the UNICEF Headquarters in New York City.
The Unpacked VR project started as an idea … ‘If we recreate this exhibit inside virtual reality, we can showcase it anywhere in the world, at any anytime’. This matured into what Unpacked VR is today: a virtual reality experience of the exhibit which lets users to view and then ‘enter’ one of the homes, and get an intimate and immersive interaction with the artwork which is not possible in real life.
Building upon the lessons learned within the AUGGMED project, and the underpinning VR development architecture of the ATLAS project, Unpacked VR was realised and delivered in under six weeks. With such a short deadline and turnaround the project required detailed project management and close collaboration with the IOM and the artists to ensure each stage of development was complete on time.
Once completed, Unpacked VR was demonstrated to the United Nations at the International Migrants Day (IMD) event on Monday, 18 December 2018 at the UNICEF Headquarters in New York. The event was attended by senior leaders of the United Nations including António Guterres, Secretary General of the UN; William Lacy Swing, Director General of IOM; and, Anthony Lake, Executive Director of UNICEF. Alongside the senior UN staff Venessa Redgrave and Liam Neeson also attended as special guests of the event.
The demonstration was part of the Unpacked Refugee exhibit with UN senior staff, VIPs, and members of the public experiencing the immersion of Unpacked VR to get a closer and personal interaction with the artwork. The reactions of all users who tried the Unpacked VR experience were profoundly positive with many users forgetting they were inside a busy art exhibit and exploring the virtual world completely.
One of the most striking moments of the demonstration occurred when Ahmed Badr could stand inside his own home from Iraq inside Unpacked VR. Ahmed thanked us for this profound and deeply emotional experience stating: ‘I really feel like I am back inside my own home’.
This highly charged and personal reaction to the Unpacked VR simulation validated the power of mixed and immersive media to communicate the work as an experience that conveys the depth of meaning and impact of the message.
Unpacked VR was created for the International Organisation for Migration and UNICEF by a team of researchers within CENTRIC including Steffi Davey (3D Artist), Nathaniel Maugard (3D Artist) and Jonathan Saunders (Developer).
Image credits: CENTRIC, 2017.
Please note: Views expressed are those of the Author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of SHU, C3RI or the C3RI Impact Blog.