Ten years ago, I walked into my first slaughterhouse, as an animal cruelty investigator, with a clunky point and shoot camera. The photos I took, of lambs cowering in the darkness, were grainy and barely usable. The key details — the quivering of the lambs, the patches of rotting skin — were lost. And the earth-shattering experience of being surrounded by baby animals suffering in filth would remain locked in my mind.
This week, at the Sundance Film Festival, everything will change. With the debut of the virtual reality (VR) investigation Operation Aspen, ordinary people donning VR headsets will be able to walk with activists as we infiltrate Sunrise Farms, a major Whole Foods egg supplier in Northern California. Alongside my fellow activists at Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), I entered Sunrise with a prototype VR camera small enough to carry in one hand and stable enough to capture footage as we moved. The result is breathtaking: a 360 degree experience walking through a "humane" egg farm. Viewers will join us as we document sickening conditions and rescue a severely injured bird.
But Operation Aspen, produced by technology company Condition One, will have impacts far beyond a single exposé. Because its release isn't just about abuses at one company. It's about a new blend of activism, technology, and storytelling that will reshape the way we think about transparency and social change.
The reason for this is that virtual reality undermines one of the greatest tools of corporate wrongdoers: spin. Traditional investigatory work is narrow in scope: a single photo or a short video clip. Whether the issue is police misconduct or animal abuse, oppressive institutions can always spin the evidence by saying it's not representative of the system as a whole. Whole Foods, for example, has repeatedly written off DxE exposés by saying our footage shows narrow snapshots of cruelty in otherwise well-managed farms.
Virtual reality will undermine this corporate spin, as the public will see exactly what activists see in 360 degrees.
VR won't just provide transparency, though, it will empower a new and dramatic form of storytelling. The goal of activists and storytellers since time immemorial has been to put ordinary people in another person's shoes. Whether with Charles Dickens' descriptions of worker abuse in A Tale of Two Cities or Black Lives Matter's shocking footage of police brutality, stories that go viral do so by making the viewer feel they are part of the story.
But traditional storytelling technology has never been able to accomplish this immersion fully. VR will change this. Viewers will no longer be witnesses. They will be directly immersed in the drama.
When I first watched Operation Aspen I was surprised by the tears that started forming in my eyes, as I watched my team carry a little bird we named Ava out of the facility. After all, I had been there myself; why was I so moved?
The reason is that VR simulated the emotional impact of being part of the rescue: the horror when we saw Ava, collapsed on the ground with her feet mangled by wire; the fear of being spotted, as we carried Ava out through the towering 15-foot cages; the anxiety of taking her to the vet, when we thought she might never walk again; and the happy tears when Ava, fully recovered, took her first steps under the sun. In short, VR made me feel I was executing the mission all over again.
And now, VR will do the same for viewers across the world. The Holy Grail of social movements is to move people to action. The best way to do this is through empowering personal experiences. When activists have joined us in open rescue, they have been forever changed. "I can do something about this violence!" they say.
But with high risk activism like DxE's open rescues, few will ever have the opportunity to personally join a team. VR will change that, and allow millions to simulate what, until now, only a tiny handful of hardcore activists could experience.
If the power of VR is not democratized, however, it will cause more harm than good. Imagine a world where only large corporations and governments have access to this technology, and use it for manipulation rather than transparency. The US government could numb people to the horrors of war by offering sanitized VR experiences in the field of battle, where villains are caricatured and victims erased. Corporations like Whole Foods could give consumers experiences in idyllic sham farms to pacify their concerns about the abuse of animals. From Facebook's Oculus to Google's Daydream, there is a growing recognition that the future of media ― and perhaps all communication ― lies in virtual reality. But if ordinary citizens don't train ourselves to use this technology, the power that comes with it will be wielded to reinforce, rather than challenge, abusive systems.
VR technology revolutionizes how ordinary people experience and engage with content. DxE hopes to sustain this momentum by spreading knowledge throughout our global grassroots network, sharing everything we know about technology and investigations at open events like the DxE Forum in Berkeley, the first conference in history where activists can experience and learn about investigations in virtual reality. If we are successful, grassroots activists will never feel the powerlessness I felt 10 years ago, when I first entered a slaughterhouse and cursed my inability to share that experience with the world.
Not everyone can join a DxE team on a rescue mission. But with VR, millions of people will soon have the next best thing: a breathtaking simulation. And when ordinary people immerse themselves in the sickening reality of modern animal farming, they will never be the same.