Two days ago, I found myself facing Bill Clinton, listening to the former U.S. president talk passionately about the work he and his foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, have been doing in Africa.
Clinton was sitting in his office, the New York City skyline visible out the plentiful windows around him, several books neatly lined up on his desk.
I wasn’t in New York, though. I was in Hollywood, attending Oculus Connect, where 1,500 virtual reality developers had come to learn the latest about Facebook-owned Oculus’ VR technology. And I was wearing a Gear VR, Samsung’s Oculus-powered virtual reality headset.
I was witnessing something entirely new: Clinton is the first U.S. president to appear in an Oculus VR experience.
As part of his work with the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), the president was showcasing three projects he and daughter Chelsea Clinton had visited during a recent trip to Africa in a VR film from the creative agency Matter Unlimited: one to bring solar power to impoverished communities where the ability to generate electricity is crucial; another to help deliver hearing-aid technology to people in Kenya; and a third to help inspire education of African girls.
Meant to be shown to hundreds of heads of state, CEOs, and other luminaries–speakers include Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Alibaba founder Jack Ma–this Sunday at the CGI’s annual meeting, the film, funded by Oculus, is launching Matter Unlimited’s new InsideImpactVR project, which is highlighting efforts toward positive social impact being done around the world.
Over time, the InsideImpactVR project will produce several films, each featuring key figures. But who better to kick off the series than one of the most popular world leaders in history?
“We looked at this opportunity, [to use VR] along with president Clinton’s [work], as a way to share his travels [with] CGI’s audience,” Ed Hughes, the foundation’s deputy director, told Fast Company. “And unlike some opportunities we’ve had in the past, where representatives speak to our meeting, or more two-dimensional films, where you’re sitting in room watching a story told through TV or a monitor, this is one where you experience it in transformational way.”
In addition to showing President Clinton interacting with people as part of the three projects, it also depicts several scenes in and around Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. One is at the Gikomba Market, the largest secondhand clothing market in Africa. Another shows Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa, an endless community of ramshackle homes housing 2 million people.
And finally, explained Rob Holzer, Matter Unlimited’s CEO, is in downtown Nairobi, shot from an intersection of a very modern street, a towering glass skyscraper in the background.
“We wanted that to be in there so that people have a different perspective,” Holzer said, explaining that many people expect Kenyan streets to be nothing but blight and decay. “VR really connects you to the experience. It makes you feel instead of just see. It’s an empathetic connection.”
Holzer said that his hope is that the film will give the many world leaders and other VIPs at the CGI annual meeting that same emotional connection and, ultimately, inspire them to get involved in the Clinton Foundation’s many causes.
All told, he said, the CGI has launched 3,200 “commitments for action,” each a project meant to help with a problem somewhere in the world.
Although the film, which was directed and produced by Felix & Paul Studios, (creators of original VR experiences like Strangers and Herders, as well as co-productions in conjunction with partners like 20th Century Fox, the Cirque du Soleil, Universal Studios, and others) was made for virtual reality, it is also being launched today on Facebook’s 360 video platform. That means, Holzer said, that it could potentially reach a billion people.
The project was co-produced by m ss ng p eces
*Updated 10/1/2015 2:10 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Bill Clinton is the first U.S. president to appear in virtual reality. While Clinton was first to appear on the Oculus platform, President Obama appeared in a 360-degree video made for iOS by Azimyth Creation Studio and The Nantucket Project.