How virtual reality could help Congress understand the issues

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When you are trying to gauge the next phenomena in advocacy technology, looking to political campaigns and private enterprise is usually a good start. New ideas coming from these two spheres will eventually trickle down to government relations departments in the corporate, association and nonprofit space.

In 2016, we saw an increased emphasis on both virtual reality and augmented reality. Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear and Google Cardboard are all becoming household items that are relatively inexpensive.

The New York Times released in early 2016 a virtual reality film from footage of presidential campaign events. Voters were able to view campaign speeches, rallies and intimate gatherings of candidates with increased sensory experiences of being able to look at the audiences reaction and hear background chatter of fellow voters commenting on the event. Virtual reality has also seen widespread adoption in the military, homeland security and professional sports along with other organizations ranging from real estate to education.

Going a step further, augmented reality is the combination of virtual reality and real-life experiences. The best example of augmented reality in 2016 was Pokémon Go, where many businesses leveraged the popularity and technology for grassroots marketing/advertising. Both virtual reality and augmented reality came in waves during 2016 with these notable high points in mainstream adoption.

{mosads}What does this mean for the advocacy world?

The advocacy world has a tremendous opportunity to leverage this innovative technology to promote social change and activism for their causes and association engagement. Since 2014, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has taken a virtual reality exhibit to universities and colleges in the United States and Australia called “I, Chicken,” a three-minute simulation of a chicken’s life that concludes with being transported and slaughtered.

You can also go to and watch virtual reality stories about the plight of refugees or the woes of urban poverty. These experiences are graphic, compelling and pull at the sensory strings of the user. This advocacy tool is targeted toward college students, but imagine if a headset was given to a member of Congress or staff member during a fly-in or in a meeting.

Human rights and public health organizations can amplify their advocacy messaging with virtual and augmented reality technology. If you are unable to arrange a factory visit or have a member of Congress tour your school, hospital or company, you can bring that same experience to them through a headset or even a mobile application.

Allow them to scroll through and see firsthand the public policy concerns facing your organization or why they should care about your cause. If you are able to get them to your school, hospital or company, why not leverage an augmented reality experience to overlay key facts and issues. Seeing a statistic or clip about the negative effects of funding cuts to a school program while in the classroom with a group of 2nd-graders is more compelling than a white paper.

In addition to the amplified sensory experience, a virtual or augmented reality experience produced in a mobile application would allow the member of Congress or staff to view persuasive content and be polled about their stance on issues related to the content. Get them to swipe left or swipe right on how they feel about Dodd-Frank, the Affordable Care Act, alternative energy tax credits or other pieces of legislation.

The advocacy technology space needs a renaissance to advance itself into the modern era where private enterprise and companies have been for a few years now. The stage is set with mobile applications designed for lobby days and year-round advocacy campaigns. I would expect this to be a key innovation in the advocacy technology space next year and beyond as organizations look to position themselves with the 115th Congress and the Trump administration.

Short-form communication and digital storytelling will continue to be the gold standard, but the mechanisms for action need to improve and advance.

Joshua Habursky is the director of advocacy at the Independent Community Bankers of America, chairman of the Grassroots Professional Network, and adjunct professor at the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University. Connect with him at

Mike Fulton directs the Washington office of the Asher Agency and teaches public affairs in West Virginia University’s Integrated Marketing Communications program. Connect with him at

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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