Tech in the Commons: A Toolkit for Place-Based Nonprofits
Be an early adopter.
We’re in the early stages of the social adoption of augmented and virtual realities.


  1. Ask yourself, What’s unseen about the work I’m doing, and what about that work could lend itself to an immersive experience for those on the outside?
  2. Play with some existing AR/VR platforms, like the Franklin Institute’s app and the Philly By Drone view of the Comcast Technology Tower, to get an idea of how other place-based organizations are using them.
  3. Buy a low-cost AR/VR option to start out, like the Ricoh Theta, and put it to use.


Augmented reality is the use of computer graphics to change what you’re experiencing — take Pokémon Go as a prime example — whereas virtual reality is about digital immersion, in which your full visual surroundings are changed, often via headset.

Why it matters

A powerful example of the social power of VR in increasing empathy is that of “Clouds Over Sidra,” a virtual reality film produced by the United Nations that follows a young Syrian girl through a refugee camp. The film helped the UN raise $3.8 billion at the fundraising conference where it was showed.

“I don’t know of any other medium that can really [let the user] embody a person” and live life through their eyes, said Greater Philadelphia Virtual and Augmented Reality Group (GPVAR) organizer Clayton McNeil.

In the future, he predicted, Facebook will create virtual “places” where users can talk with each other instead of writing at each other. And Snapchat already has Spectacles, the $129 glasses (or $150 for the 2.0 version, released in 2018 to mixed reviews) that record Snaps from the user’s perspective.

While augmented and virtual technologies can seem inaccessible (and out of the price range) of many smaller nonprofits, there are ways to get in on these trends now before they’re widely used.

For “every successive technology, the adoption period is about five years” — which means prices and barriers to entry will drop over time, McNeil said.

Below: Drexel University professor Nick Jushchyshyn show 2018 Tech in the Commons attendees how to record a VR video with a Vuze VR camera. 

How to apply it

Place-based nonprofits can use augmented and virtual reality to show off the best features of their physical surroundings, increasing engagement on their web platforms — and, hopefully, increasing visitors to the space itself.

That’s exactly what Visit Philadelphia did when it launched its 360-degree virtual platform in early 2017, said Kristina Jenkins, the nonprofit’s digital content director. The platform gives potential visitors an immersive view of a city’s best features, including landmarks such as the Art Museum steps and Elfreth’s Alley. (We’re setting aside the debate about whether systems like Google Cardboard have all the qualities that make up pure virtual reality, like full-motion tracking.)

Here are Jenkins’ tips for nonprofits looking to take on a similar project:

  • Pick metrics early on and stick with them through development — Jenkins recommends that anyone exploring the idea of using virtual reality or 360-degree video to “really think about those goals and think about how this technology can help you get there.” How will you know your project is a success?
  • Don’t be afraid to haggle — The virtual reality company that produced the project was open to negotiating on the cost of services because Visit Philly a nonprofit. Use your tax status to your advantage.
  • Keep updated on new technology trends — Even if they seem inaccessible now, they’ll be easy to access soon. “We really only know a really small amount of what it can do and what it can be, and it’s still in its infancy,” Jenkins said about virtual reality. “I think that for nonprofits and smaller organizations, there will come a time when this technology is far more accessible than it is right now.”
  • Have fun — This technology “can be approachable and it should be approached, because it’s just so cool.”

The tools available now

There are a handful of AR/VR tech tools that are currently available at reasonable prices, as shared by Jushchyshyn:

  • Google Cardboard — A simple mask that holds an iPhone and lets the user explore a variety of place-based apps; $5 to $70
  • Ricoh Theta — A handheld, 360-degree camera that records images and video and is capable of live streaming; $199 to $399
  • Vuze — A 4K stereoscopic 3D 360-degree video and photo camera; $799 to $1,195
  • WebVR — An open standard that makes it possible to experience AR/VR in your browser via computer or smartphone; free

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