Recently, a colleague of mine asked for my take on how nonprofits might benefit from virtual reality (a.k.a. VR) or 3-D videos, a relatively new technology that’s been getting hype in some quarters over the last few years. These are interactive films that let the viewer turn around in a full circle and see what’s going on in every direction.

Take a look for yourself. Here’s the nonprofit Charity: Water using this technique in a video that’s designed to introduce you to the world of one particular character:

What do you think? Should you jump on the bandwagon and invest in a 3-D video? Personally, I’m not so sure. It has potential, but it also involves some significant trade-offs.

Pro: Trendiness

It’s an original approach to video, that’s for sure. It’s different, it’s impressive, and it will be able to garner some momentum from that alone. Coolness is a virtue that shouldn’t be underestimated; people spend a lot of time and money trying to produce a video with that kind of wow-factor, laboring over concepts and sets and editing; here, with VR, you can get it through the method of filming itself, at a very reasonable price tag.

It’s certainly one way to generate leads. If you can keep those eyes on you after the video is over, it will have earned its keep. But is that a trick you can pull more than once? Once the novelty has faded, does VR have other qualities that make it worth adopting more broadly?

Con: Losing the plot

My concern, when it comes to VR, is that it limits your ability to tell the viewer a story.

Let’s take a moment to compare this style with more traditional videos. In the latter, the visuals you choose to incorporate all have a particular purpose. You select them and arrange them because you want to use all the sensory details in the images, music, dialogue, etc. to communicate something essential. When you’re able to guide the whole experience, you can eliminate distractions and make sure that your message is getting across.

VR videos have a lot of distractions built into the premise. You may be trying to tell the viewer a story, but at the same time, you’re encouraging him or her to be at least partially focused on the controls. You’re risking the viewer being stuck on tangential details at what should be a key moment.

Con: Emotional distance

The usual approach to filming with VR is to place the camera in the center in order to capture as much of the scene as possible. This means, however, that the camera also tends to be located at a distance from the faces of the people involved. You can’t use close-ups to capture their emotional responses; you can’t cut to them for their personal reactions.

That human element is such an essential part of the power of video. If you lose that, what are you getting in return?

Pro: Immersive potential

Maybe VR isn’t ideal for telling a traditional story, but it captures a location like nothing else out there. When the Charity: Water video brings you into the classroom, for example, you get a real sense of the space. You’re completely immersed in the business going on around you, the bustle of activity—and you’re all the more engaged with it because you’re interacting with it yourself.

Maybe mixing a VR video with a traditional one doesn’t work, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have other kinds of potential. Outside the nonprofit world, VR has been put to use making highly immersive video games that are more about exploring a small world than following a narrative. Could a nonprofit benefit from giving viewers the opportunity to personally explore in a similar way? What scenes or spaces would you like to bring to life for your donors?

All in all, I’d say that VR is just a different tool than traditional video, with its own weaknesses and strengths that may not yet have been fully uncovered or applied. It’s up to you to decide what makes sense for your context.

So, is VR more than a gimmick? Can it transform your video marketing? Let us know what you think.

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