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How Australian CEOs are using VR to experience life on the streets

The Vinnie’s CEO Sleepout is an annual gathering unlike any other.

Devised by local businessman Bernard Fehon in partnership with charitable organisation St Vincent de Paul Society in 2006, the event was created to raise money for the homeless.

The event calls for the CEOs of Australian corporations to sleep for one night at an open-air camp and donate to local communities that are in desperate need to break the cycle of poverty.

According to advocacy organisation Homeless Australia, there are more than 105,000 Australians living on the streets at this very moment.

Vinnie’s CEO Sleepout first went national in 2010, attracting nearly 700 executives in seven cities and raising more than $2.9 million.

This year’s event had a tech component which involved the attendees wearing a virtual reality headset to experience a glimpse of the day-to-day struggles of the homeless.

The participants then spent the night on cardboard boxes laid out across the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Held in June, the gathering raised more than $5.5 million dollars with close to 1500 participating CEOs and more than 38,000 supporters.

Despite the initiative’s success, there are some who question the ethics and genuine empathy of such an event.

To Anne-Marie Elias, co-founder of Techfugees Australia, the use of the VR headsets showed a “total disconnect” with the real situation of homeless people in the country.

“I just thought, what the fuck is wrong with us? Are we for real?” she told SmartCompany.

“You just don’t gamify disadvantage like this. Unless they were on top of a mountain and they couldn’t access any homeless people, they could have actually spent time with a homeless person.”

Elias suggested that instead of simulating life on the streets, each CEO should be paired with a homeless person for a night and actually live the experience for real.

She added, “I know it comes from a good place, and I don’t want to diminish Vinnies’ efforts in all this, it’s a great idea in the sense of raising awareness, but it’s just poorly executed.”

The idea also received a fair amount of backlash on social media, with users taking their reservations to Twitter.

St Vincent De Paul Society also responded to the negative reaction. Their social media manager defended the initiative, underlining the fact that the event was “fully sponsored” and that the VR experience was only “one component of the evening”.

A spokesperson for the charity added, “The exercise also included face-to-face discussions with our frontline staff to discuss and get a better understanding of some of the barriers faced by people experiencing homelessness as well as some of the services provided by Vinnies to assist them.”

Ironically, while the CEOs of Australia’s biggest companies were using VR headsets to experience the life of the homeless, the occupants of a long-standing open-air camp at Sydney’s Martin Place were being evicted.

The camp was controversially dismantled by order of the city council, which considered it a “public nuisance”.

Are you a CEO and interested in the event? You can register for the 2018 sleepout here.

If you would like to make a donation to Vinnies, please head to their website.

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros

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