One of the most popular VR experiences at Sundance New Frontier this year was Across the Line, which is a piece that simulated what it feels like to walk through an abortion clinic protest line. It was produced by Nonny de la Peña’s Emblematic Group and 371 Productions. It contained a mixture of live-action, 360 video documentary along with a room-scale, CGI recreation of walking past protestors who are calling you everything from a “whore” to “wicked jezebel feminist.” It’s a visceral, emotional, and intense experience, and Molly Eagan was there to talk to people before and after they experienced it. She’s the Vice President of Planned Parenthood Experience, and I had a chance to catch up with her to talk about some of the reactions and how this project came about.
LISTEN TO THE VOICES OF VR PODCAST
Getting yelled at is generally not an experience that I typically go out of my way in my life to seek out. But I did go out of my way to wait over two hours to see Across the Line at Sundance to see how VR could be used to address hot-button political issues like abortion and protests at Planned Parenthood clinics.
There’s some really powerful cinéma vérité moments in the beginning of the Across the Line experience that show an actual patient getting confronted and pressured by protestors on her way to getting an abortion. The patient is visibly shaken up when the Planned Parenthood doctor comes into the office, and she takes a moment to counsel her on how disturbing it must be to have to deal with protesters in getting there that day.
In the second half of the VR experience, you’re walking across the room-scale space and listening to protestors demean you as you make your way into a virtual Planned Parenthood clinic. You’re on a street, and you walk by about 5-6 different animated CGI characters who start to yell at you as you begin to enter within their range. One by one you walk up to and listen to what each of these people have to say. Molly says that a lot of people think that what’s being said may be scripted, but it’s actually live audio that was captured from around the country and edited into what could be called a VR montage sequence.
It’s really powerful content and I love the concept of the piece, but I couldn’t help but feel that this interactive virtual simulation portion was contrived, which made it difficult to maintain my suspension of disbelief. In an ordinary situation, I’d likely rush past the protestors and not look them in the eye while they were all screaming at me at the same time. But in this VR simulation of the situation, I look each one directly in their eyes as I see computer animated representations of these voices talk to me one at a time. It’s hard not to feel a bit of uncanniness as the NPC characters were clearly on a script with no way to interact with them beyond triggering their vitriol at me.
I found that it was actually easier to feel empathy through a 360 video of someone else’s experience as I sat in the back seat of a car and observed an intense confrontation as if I were a ghost within a omniscient third-person perspective. It’s harder to feel empathy for other people’s situation when you flip into the first-person perspective and you’re interacting with NPC characters who aren’t dynamically reacting to me or have believable body language that indicate me that they’re real. It quickly becomes apparent that I’m in a virtual simulation that’s in no way really plausible, and it broke my sense of presence.
This reinforced Baobab Studio’s Eric Darnell suspicion that there could actually be a tradeoff between empathy and interactivity. As soon as I start to step into the first-person perspective in an interactive environment with NPCs, then it becomes more of a game where I have goals to accomplish. Your mind starts to get more focused on the rules of this virtual simulation and what you can and can not do rather than feeling like you’re actually there interacting with real people. Even though the source of the audio is from real protestors who actually said all of these horrible things, it just feels like you’re in a wax museum listening to robots recite scripted dialog.
There were powerful moments of feeling like I was there in the shoes of a patient and hearing what is said to people around the country, but the technology seemed to be getting in the way of the story. Reggie Watts said on a panel at Sundance that the goal of any technology is for it to completely disappear so that you’re more focused on the content of the experience rather than the technical limitations of it. There were a lot of non-VR people at Sundance who were able to get lost in this experience, but I feel like my VR nerdiness couldn’t help but to start to pick apart the lack of plausibility.
It made think about a lot of questions for how to most maximize the amount of empathy that VR can generate, and here’s a number of open questions:
- Is it possible to have interactive stories with NPCs that are able to generate empathy? Or does the AI and realistic body language need to get a lot better before we get there?
- If empathy is the goal, then is it more effective to use the third-person perspective where you’re a ghost without any impact? Or are there experiences where being in the first-person perspective is really the best way?
- Is it possible cultivate empathy when you’re a character within the story with limited local agency, but no real global agency? Or is it better to be an passive ghost observer?
- When is it better to capture a moment with live 360 video vs recreating something with CGI?
Overall, I think Across the Line did an amazing job at capturing some real visceral emotions and creating a really powerful experience. Most of the people I saw coming out of it were clearly impacted, and it was an experience that generated a lot of buzz in Park City. It also made a number of people really angry, and the emotion of anger can often lead to action, which is in the end the reaction that Planned Parenthood would want to see. It was an emotionally moving experience for me, and I’m grateful that the creators are pushing the boundaries of storytelling and that it’s brought up a lot of questions around the best practices for designing VR experiences to generate empathy.