molly-eaganOne 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.

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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.

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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?
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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.

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  • Eric

    Interesting put I have to say I am sure she picked out the worst of people to prove her point. I say make a VR experience goes on during abortion operation and follow the life of the mother afterward.

    • cc7777

      Well said Eric. What if the smiling baby in utero reaching out with little fingers at the end of “The Evolution of Verse” by Chris Milk depicted the horror of the baby being dismembered by the abortionist’s tools? This would put in perspective the whole issue rather than creating a piece depicting a very small minority of mean spirited protesters who would be targeting the confused teen.

      • Marin Placeholder

        It’s the 21st century and with all of our progress, it’s one of our last “accepted” vestiges of barbarism. But then again, I’m male and what we as a gender still do this day do to other human beings where there is no misinformation about whether the victim “feels” what is being done leaves me in a very glass house hurling the “abortion is murder” stone.
        I take a pass and as strongly as I feel against it, I wash my hands and let the women, and their body(ies) own and decide this one.

        • cc7777

          Good opening sentence Marin although there is much barbarism worldwide beyond abortion. As for the glass house position, the most dedicated pro life advocates I know and know of are women. As for the fetal pain issue just google it. I would not be surprised if we have the technology to neurologically track the pain the unborn child is feeling during an abortion. Even if we don’t have this capability, check out this paragraph from abort73: “I have been told by advocates of abortion that we have no proof that the fetus actually feels pain. Strictly, they are quite correct. Pain is a peculiarly personal and subjective experience and there is no biochemical or physiological test we can do to tell that anyone is in pain – a phenomenon which makes it very easy to bear other people’s pain stoically, which is an important point for obstetricians to remember. By the same token we lack any proof that animals feel pain. However, to judge from their responses, it seems charitable to assume they do. Were this not so there would be no point in having an organization like the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and I for one would be unhappy to think we would withhold from the human fetus a charitable consideration we were prepared to extend to animals.”

          • Marin Placeholder

            Oh yes, there is much barbarism in the world. I said “accepted” as in “socially accepted” (western world). One of the last remaining.
            I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. I agree the fetus feels pain. I have seen videos where the poor thing’s face contorts in agony as it is being dismembered. Not many watch those. I was making the point that male humans torturing and murdering other humans aren’t misinformed as to whether their victims feel pain and so the male genders crime is more deliberately heinous.
            As a man, I have to focus my energies on the issues I can most relate to, that is, on a gender who tries to forcibly dominate those around them. I do not have the perspective needed to place myself in the woman’s shoes. As far as placing oneself in the skin of the unborn child, that fight and argument has to be weighed by pro-life women. As a pro-life male, I have no standing with a pro-choice woman. This is my point. Men deal with and help other men face their “demons” and women guide other women.
            I’m speaking in generalities and not specifics as when a woman asks a man or vice versa for advice and guidance with a gender centric problem.
            A pro-choice woman reading these comments by “men” who are telling them “what to do with their bodies” has the opposite effect and turns none to the “other side”.

  • Xilence

    This is stupid, it’s biased and inaccurate. I can’t believe you guys would write a piece on this.

  • realtrisk

    What a disgusting bunch of garbage. Booh to you for covering it.

    • owlcool

      Would you say the same if it was on a Syrian Refugee’s Journey?
      I honestly can’t tell if you wouldn’t.

  • yag

    Interesting, people have to see how these “pro-life” wackos can be nuts…

  • Nashoba Darkwolf

    I wouldn’t call them “pro-life” as much as anti-choice. Why? Because very often the people who call themselves “pro-life” have no issue using their same religious bigotry against LGBT children.

    I’d like to see more things like this come out on different topics too. Like being a LGBT teen being told how horrible, disgusting, and evil you are by the same people who call themselves your parents. Then having to survive on the street in the dead of winter for months or longer; having homeless shelters refuse you because you’re gay.

  • Jason

    Our country was founded on the principle that everyone has a right to life – the most basic of all rights, without which no other rights exist.