NAIROBI, KENYA - Thousands of people are using their smartphones to experience the devastation of urban conflict through an augmented reality app which aims to raise awareness of the suffering faced by millions trapped by war, the app's developer said on Monday.
Launched by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in March, "Enter the room" provides a visceral, first-person experience of war through the eyes of child from their bedroom.
While there are numerous apps being designed by aid groups, this is the first known use of augmented reality (AR) by the humanitarian sector to simulate civilian life at war. The app has been downloaded more than 50,000 times since its launch.
Entering through a portal on the screen of their device, users experience the impact of years of fighting in accelerated time as the virtual child's bedroom room transforms from a place of light and laughter to one of darkness and suffering.
"It (AR) makes war real in a powerful and new way and pushes the audience to really think about this question: What if this happened to your childhood bedroom, or your son or daughter's?" said the ICRC's Digital Content Manager Ariel Rubin.
"We spend our lives on our smartphones, walking around with our eyes glued to them. There is something incredibly moving about mapping this virtual reality onto our actual reality “and within that creating a narrative that tells a real story."
Around 65 million people are fleeing conflict in countries like Syria and Yemen today - 75 percent of whom live in cities, where battles are increasingly taking place, says the ICRC.
Yet many of urban conflicts are being waged using weaponry designed for open battlefields, say aid workers, resulting in greater destruction in these highly populated towns and cities.
As a result, vital infrastructure from medical facilities to basic services such as electricity and water are being hit.
In Yemen, for example, there has been a total collapse of the healthcare system, water and sewage network, the food chain, and the most basic building blocks for a healthy and functioning society - all because of the war, said Rubin.
"It is easy to get lost in the numbers and forget that each and every number represents a human being. Many of them are children who see their bedrooms, homes, their childhoods be totally destroyed by war," he said.
"Our hope is that the AR app will help connect people to this reality that millions of people are facing every day in their cities."
Augmented reality apps for gaming such as Pokémon GO have become increasingly popular in recent years, but they are also being developed as online shopping and education tools.
Preliminary reviews of 'Enter the room' have been largely positive.
"The chance to use augmented reality to generate empathy towards the victims of these ignored conflicts is an exciting application of this new technology," said one user's review on Apple's App Store.
"Hopefully, it can lead to meaningful change in the world's response to the continuing slaughter of innocents in places like Syria, Central African Republic, Sudan and Yemen."