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A Conversation with Sarah Porter

A Conversation with Sarah Porter

The responsible development of XR technology requires a diverse community of voices to help build it. To celebrate the limitless number of perspectives in the XR industry, the XR Association sat down with Sarah Porter, Director of Innovative Philanthropy at Hope for Haiti. Hope for Haiti works to improve the quality of life and alleviate poverty in Haiti through education, healthcare, economic development and clean water initiatives.

Below is an excerpt of the interview with Porter, which has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity. 


1. How did you first get involved with Hope for Haiti? 

I’ve been with Hope for Haiti for about five and a half years now and it has gone by very fast. The thing that drew me to the organization, in addition to the mission, was learning that the majority of our staff is Haitian and from the local community. Hope for Haiti is focused on poverty alleviation, and I’m not Haitian, nor do I know what’s best for Haiti. But my Haitian colleagues do, so here in the U.S., we’re really focused on raising the resources and support for the work happening directly on the ground.

We work specifically with 24 communities focusing on education, health care, access to clean water, economic development, and responses to the 2021 earthquake that hit Haiti.


2. So here in the U.S., how do you communicate Hope for Haiti’s mission? And how do you leverage XR to do so?

I’ve really enjoyed getting us into new spaces and finding new ways to raise awareness and support. I think the nonprofit world is changing and there’s a real need to figure out, in addition to the way that we work, and traditionally fundraise and communicate, what else we could be doing to really share our mission and our work. 

VR specifically is something that I’ve found very interesting. Right before COVID, I was living in New York at the time, and in Manhattan, there’s a place called VR World. It had all these different virtual reality experiences with different headsets, most of them for games, but I was so blown away by how sophisticated the technology was, and how immersive it was. After that, I just couldn’t get this question out of my head. Why aren’t we using this? How could we use this? From there, we were able to partner with a VR studio that helped recreate one of our partner schools in rural Haiti as a VRF optimized for the Oculus Quest.

I love what they were able to create. They actually took blueprints of one of our partner schools and they recreated it all CGI to look exactly like this partner school. When you put on the headset, you drop in as an avatar and walk through three classrooms. You could write on the chalkboard, you can pump one of the water wells, and engage with others in the experience as a social space. They even have a Haitian flag, because all the schools in Haiti have one in the schoolyard, that you can raise and lower. It’s been a great way for us to talk about Haiti and to talk about Haiti in a new way by bringing people into the space with us to show them what we do. 


3. What has been the response that you’ve seen then and the people who have gone through and interacted with that program?

We ask each other this question all the time. If we can’t bring everyone to Haiti, is there a way to bring Haiti to everyone? VR is an interesting way that we’ve been doing that and it’s been really fun. 

I have been sort of a one-woman VR booth and taking the experience to a lot of our different in-person events including at AWE the last three years. So I personally have strapped a headset on hundreds and hundreds of faces over the last few years, if not more. And what I love is that even people who are pretty familiar with VR have given us really good feedback. But what’s also very fun for me is putting a headset on people’s faces who do not have a lot of experience with VR. It’s especially exciting to see people’s first reactions to VR technology and to be able to provide them with a unique experience.


4. What do you think is the impact of using XR for this kind of work? And why is it important to utilize this new innovative way of doing nonprofits?

I think it became really clear early on when COVID started to spread. Everyone was affected, our work was affected and everyone was navigating a lot of challenges during a very uncertain time.

It was clear that things were changing as more things went virtual. [Back then,] we were about to launch a big campaign, our annual Hike for Haiti challenge, and we were debating if we should cancel or postpone. We ended up making it more of a virtual event and that’s something that has stuck over the last few years. We’ve seen that a lot of things have stayed virtual, and this virtual space is growing. So for me, it just became very obvious that we have to find new ways to introduce people to our work, to our mission, as well as how we raise awareness and funding. 

I also think brands and the corporate world have done a good job, for the most part, of embracing some of this new stuff that pops up in VR, AR, XR, and Web 3. But how can we get the nonprofit world and those focused on social impact and causes to also be tapping into this? There really is such limitless potential.


5. In your opinion, what does the XR industry need?

I think it’s more social impact leaders. They’re there, and I’ve been reading more stories about XR for impact. I love that that’s becoming the narrative and entering the conversation [around immersive technology.] The more that we can elevate that conversation, we can use it to make a change in the real world. It’s asking ourselves, how do we use the digital world to create avenues to make real sustainable change in our day-to-day lives and in the lives of others?

We also need to get better at shining a light [on current diverse leaders] and making sure that there is more equality and more diversity across the whole spectrum because it’s there. The people are there.  It’s just who tends to get the spotlight and who tends to get the microphone.


6. Are there any key lessons we need to be aware of from XR immersive technology?

I think we have to be careful that our development of technology isn’t outpacing our ethical use of it. It’s really being mindful of how we are using this new immersive tech, as opposed to that being a retroactive consideration. 

Tech evolves so fast, so we need to be more intentional about asking ourselves questions along the way, and not necessarily after the fact. These new tech things come out and it’s very exciting and mind-blowing to consider what we as humans have built and what it can do. But, it’s also important to not wait and ask the questions after it’s already out there into the world. Questions like, How should we be using it? How do we use this ethically? That is one thing I would encourage the industry to really take into consideration.


7. At XRA, we like to say that XR has limitless potential. What does that mean to you?

I would definitely agree with that. The potential truly is limitless, XR can do such amazing things. What I love about it is it can transport us to places that we otherwise may never be able to go. And I’ve just become so fascinated by some of the studies done around XR and primarily VR, about how it generates empathy in a way that text, photo, and video just don’t capture. And I love it when I hear people call it an empathy generator. I do think it’s maybe the closest we can get to feeling another person’s experiences. And that right there just shows that there are huge possibilities. 

One of the things I like to think about is, how we can use this and how it can relate to the work that a lot of nonprofits and cause organizations are doing. For example, in previous positions, I’ve taken part in various, lobby days. If you’re lucky, you might get 5-10 minutes with a legislator or an aide, and have a few minutes to make your pitch, and you really have to make your point. But what if we could walk in with a headset and say, put this on first? Five minutes. And then let’s talk. 


8. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

For those who are going to be in the New York City area, we have our annual Celebrating Hope event on October 27. We will have our VR experience there for guests to enjoy in addition to live music and a fully catered Haitian dinner. We’ll also be honoring Coinbase and the Clara Lionel Foundation. So we invite anyone to join us in person.