Where movies provide an escape from reality, virtual reality can plunge the participant deep into the world itself. At least that's the motive behind Project Empathy, a series of first-person VR tales that connect the viewer with those inside the criminal justice system.
It's the latest venture from tech entrepreneur, director, and producer Jamie Wong; PCMag met up with her recently in Los Angeles.
Before the interview began, we put on a Galaxy Note 5-equipped Samsung Gear VR$99.99 at Amazon, blocked out the sounds of Southern California under some Sony headphones, and watched a demo of The Letter, part of the Project Empathyseries.
It's a compelling, sobering, and profoundly sad story about Shaka Senghor, who served a 19-year prison sentence, much of it in solitary confinement, for second-degree murder. As soon as you're inside the VR setup, Senghor materializes in front of you—kneecap to kneecap and larger than life.
As his story unfolds, you realize that you're locked inside a prison cell, too. It's a moment of dread that is horrifyingly real inside VR and cannot be replicated on a flat screen.
There's an open latrine to your left, a steel door slammed shut ahead, and no windows, just a skylight that's too high up to see through. With a sense of impending doom, you turn around to examine the full 360-degree scene. You're sitting on a bleak, cheerless cot. The first instinct is to run, but you can't get out. So it's a relief when Senghor gets to the part in his story where he is today—no longer inside and rebuilding his life.
"It all started 35,000 feet in the air, at Ungrounded, a hackers' event in 2013, aboard a British Airways flight from San Francisco to London, where I sat next to Van Jones," the political advisor, author, and TV personality, Wong told PCMag about Project Empathy's origins. "[It] ended up in solitary, in a prison cell, directing the first VR shoot, the one you just experienced, with a stereoscopic custom-made GoPro rig and a mission to change the way society views incarceration."
On the flight, surrounded by Silicon Valley geeks from Google Ventures, Craigslist, and all the usual suspects, Wong and Jones connected immediately. They both started off in the legal profession, had extensive experience in entertainment, and a through-line passion for social reform.
A Yale-educated attorney and former Obama White House staffer, Jones startedThe Dream Corps, launching initiatives like #Cut50, which is working with Senghor and others to reduce the prison population by 50 percent over the next decade.
Wong grew up in Berkeley, a hotbed of social change, and worked at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. After earning a Masters in Broadcast Journalism at Columbia University, she developed her storytelling skills under the tutelage of Michael Moore on the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 and as a producer on the Emmy Award-winning series The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
"Funny enough, Van Jones was one of the few people I didn't know on the flight," Wong said. "I'd grown up in the Bay Area, done Y Combinator to start my own tech company, and here was someone who didn't come from that world, but was fascinated about what VR could do to change society. We joined forces and Project Empathy is the result."
But unlike many other VR projects, which are often more about spectacle than pushing the boundaries of the medium, Project Empathy isn't about storytelling for its own sake.
"It's about giving legislators a first-hand look at the effect of their decision to incarcerate a growing number of fellow human beings," explained Wong. "Because when you throw someone into solitary, you are creating the very monster you fear."
So, on March 1, 2017, The Dream Corps will send out hundreds of "Ambassadors of Empathy," equipped with VR headsets, to all 50 state capitals and Capitol Hill. It is hoped that by understanding the consequences of the existing criminal justice system firsthand, those in a position to do so will set about changing it.
In the meantime, if you find yourself in LA on Sept. 15, Project Empathy will be previewed at the Race and Justice in America: An Atlantic Summit.