Gabo Arora: The Impact of Experiential Storytelling

What does a powerful story do? It educates; entertains; dissolves or hardens the boundaries between self and “other”; it challenges the nature of perspective. Virtual reality technology has been used to conjure representations of “possible worlds” and possible people. What happens when “actual” or “real” worlds and people become the object of focus?

Cue Gabo Arora, co-founder of content-technology and research studio Tomorrow Never Knows and VR production company LightShed. For Arora, the immersiveness of VR induces an empathy unlike that of other media. “I was curious if emerging technologies could get us to do more and care more about social issues,” says Arora, before speaking at A/D/O’s July Homo- Sapiens, I Hear You Seminar on curiosity.

That personal and emotional curiosity led Arora to start approaching his role as senior adviser to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon more creatively. In 2013, Arora began collaborating with Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton on a project to engage the public in the U.N.’s work. Then, a YouTube video he produced on the Amazon went viral, boosting his confidence in marrying new and emerging media with the U.N.’s mission-driven storytelling needs.

“These issues can be popular,” he remembers thinking — and, in terms of integrating VR into the U.N.’s communications strategy, “There weren’t a lot of precedents.” After that, it was Arora himself who pitched the idea of becoming the U.N.’s first creative director.

His earliest VR documentary work for the U.N., Clouds Over Sidra, traces a day-in-the-life of a young Syrian girl living in Jordan’s Za'atari Refugee Camp. According to Arora, donations to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) exploded after the VR film’s release, solidifying, more materially, the potency of VR’s emotional and sensory impact, and strengthening the case to keep funding new media projects like it. VR could, it seemed, avoid the pitfalls of traditional humanitarian and NGO storytelling, trading in the heavy-handedness and dry organizational language for a story that focused more artfully on “the ordinary” — all while raising significant chunks of money for programming.

Arora has since spent the last three years attempting to merge nonfiction storytelling with emerging virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies — a hybrid he refers to as “creative nonfiction in a visual or VR way.” His most recent projects land somewhere in between ethnographic documentary, experimental art video, data visualization, educational animation, and narrative VR film. Arora is widely regarded as an innovator, not only for using technologies still considered alternative in creative spheres, but also for the newness of creating immersive experiences around this particular subject matter.

Arora refers to his outlook as distinctly cosmopolitan and the nature of his subject matter means he is regularly an outsider looking in. He selects projects based on an unexpected need to challenge his biases, which can often place him in uneasy scenarios. “You have to follow your curiosity to sometimes uncomfortable places [...] There’s a lot to learn from people.”  

Until recently, he avoided producing VR work on domestic social issues in the U.S. because they didn’t pique his interest. But, that’s changing with his upcoming project: a spatial-computing AR experience—complete with mixed-reality headsets—based on sociologist Matthew Desmond’s influential book Evicted, which explores the devastating geography of evictions in the U.S.

According to Arora, curiosity, on the whole, is essential to emerging technologies like VR and AR. He looks regularly to other industries like advertising, the film industry, art world, and music industry to learn about form, branding, and even to understand better the language of manipulation. “I see myself as an immersive artist, a professor — I believe in teaching and research — and I’m a creative technologist,” replies Arora when asked about how he tends to identify himself now.

Even the pre-production process for his companies LightShed and Tomorrow Never Knows steers away from the traditional workflow of the film and media industries. Instead of drawing up storyboards, his engineers go straight to creating VR prototypes of the project. The playtesting phase comes after, and the program is cycled through to ensure all bugs and glitches are caught well before rollout.

Yet, VR’s future potential is hard to map out, and Arora acknowledges that navigating emerging technologies can be complicated: “ Each time you kind of figure something out, it changes – and then you’ve got to figure it out again.” There’s frustration, but also freedom. The world of VR remains now, for Arora, an “untainted” space: “People are experimenting; it’s not being driven by a corporate market structure.” 

Text By Meredith Lawder
Photos and Videos Courtesy of Gabo Arora