Google, UNAIDS tackle HIV through VR films

After watching the VR film, 94.8% of participants felt more likely to test for HIV.
After watching the VR film, 94.8% of participants felt more likely to test for HIV.

The United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has partnered with Google and Makhulu Media to develop virtual reality (VR) educational films aimed at educating young South Africans about the scourge of HIV/AIDS.

The films, developed in light of World Aids Day, which took place on Saturday, were created as a pilot with the hope of a national rollout next year.

Google's virtual reality platform, Google DayDream, in partnership with various NGOs, including the Open Society Foundation, UNAIDS and the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, committed an initial donation of $60 000 (R800 000) towards the development of the films, aimed at educating clinic workers and young South Africans about HIV testing.

Using the latest technology and VR headsets, the 360-degree VR films help to demystify HIV testing, by educating young people who may want to know their HIV status but are afraid or worried about taking an HIV test.

The open source films were shot in Khayelitsha, Nyanga and Gugulethu townships. They were reviewed by focus groups made up of 77 HIV-negative and HIV-positive youth as well as 70 healthcare workers at various clinics and mobile testing units around Cape Town.

"When it comes to getting tested and adhering to HIV treatment, one of the biggest challenges facing young people in Southern Africa is the stigma surrounding their sexual activity, often perpetuated by clinic workers," says Sydelle Willow Smith, director at Makhulu Media and Sunshine Cinema.

"We wanted to see if immersive VR films could encourage people to take an HIV test and improve relationships between nurses and young people by helping them to step into each other's shoes.

"The films focus on conveying a sense of social empathy through immersive stories of stigma, as well as youth-friendly interactions, as experienced by youth in healthcare settings, when navigating clinic spaces and dealing with healthcare workers."

In one of the films, a group of young people re-enact several scenarios of a young woman's journey to find out her HIV status. Going from her home to a local health clinic, the films allow viewers to explore different settings through a 360-degree experience.

According to research firm IDC, the combined augmented reality and VR headset market is expected to reach 81.2 million units by 2021, with a compound annual growth rate of 56.1%, as more companies integrate the technologies into their training solutions.

While longer-term research still needs to be done, initial findings bode well for the power of VR to decrease the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and increase adherence to treatment in South African public clinics, notes Makhulu Media.

The company says it plans to rollout out headsets across clinics nationwide in 2019, but requires government endorsement and more funding to make this happen.

"Before viewing the VR film, 22.8% of youth respondents said the fear of testing positive kept them from testing for HIV. After watching the VR film, 94.8% felt more likely to test for HIV and wanted to learn more about HIV treatment.

"While no piece of media will ever produce empathy or produce social change in and of itself, these films will serve as a tool to create necessary dialogue and opportunities for listening to different perspectives to shift perceptions and stigmatising behaviour," concludes Smith.

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