Virtual reality app brings crisis zones closer to home

‘Welcome to Aleppo’ is one of more than a dozen virtual reality videos available on a mobile app launched by RYOT

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Bombed-out buildings tower overhead, and rubble is piled high in the deserted streets of Syria’s onetime economic hub Aleppo. Gunshots can be heard in the distance.

The destruction of four years of civil war is overwhelming - and then you switch your phone off.

“Welcome to Aleppo” is one of more than a dozen virtual reality videos available on a mobile app launched this month by Los Angeles-based media company RYOT.

The project offers a 360-degree window into the war-torn city, captured with a camera made up of six GoPros, then stitched together to create a full panoramic view of the scene. A Syrian woman narrates a three-minute tour.

Users - watching on a mobile device or wearing a virtual reality headset - can shift their viewpoint at will - looking up, down and even behind them to take in collapsing buildings and ruined streets by moving or tilting their device.

“I’ve always struggled to show the scale of devastation after a disaster. With virtual reality, you get an opportunity to really see scale and scope,” said co-founder Bryn Mooser.

“It brings people directly to far-off places or places in crisis so they can experience firsthand what that looks like.”

RYOT’s virtual reality app offer viewers a variety of immersive experiences, from post-earthquake Nepal to the U.S.-Mexico border fence, and most recently an up-close look at a migrant camp in Calais, northern France.

Mooser and co-founder David Darg say they hope their virtual reality films will increase awareness and generate money for aid groups working on the ground.

The films include a call for the audience to take action. The Syria film directs users to RYOT.org/Syria, where they can donate to humanitarian organizations.

Oliver Money with the International Rescue Committee, one of the groups linked to the Syria project, said virtual reality could “bridge that divide” between crises and donors.

For IRC and other aid groups, it is a “huge challenge” to keep crises like Syria in the public consciousness, Money said.

“Something that can help bring that home to people in a more immersive way has the potential to be very powerful,” Money told AFP.