Virtual reality activism

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Exploring the inception and the effectiveness of the iAnimal virtual reality experience with Animal Equality’s Toni Shephard.

Animal Equality are known for their work bringing factory farm and slaughterhouse footage to the public. With the creation of iAnimal, a virtual reality headset, the wearer is transported inside the video. Elena Orde speaks to Animal Equality’s Executive Director Toni Shephard about the impact of this technology on the vegan movement.

Where did the idea for iAnimal come from?

iAnimal in real life

One of the founders of Animal Equality, Jose Valle, is very into technology and has been following the progress of virtual reality over the last two years. He realised that it would be feasible to take out to events and onto the high street, to give people that experience of actually being inside the farm and the slaughterhouse. We wanted people’s first experiences of virtual reality to be of factory farming, because then it’s going to stay in their brain forever.

How was the footage created?

We had to go out and take new footage, specifically for iAnimal. This is because we needed 360 degrees – you need to film absolutely everything so that when you watch it through the headset you actually feel like you’re standing in the room.

At first we had to experiment with cameras. We started off using a custom built rig with six GoPro cameras in a hexagon shape. Then we took the footage from the six cameras, and stitched it together using specialised software. Since then, we’ve progressed to using some of the custom built, very wide fish angle lenses, so we’re down to using just three cameras now. We can still catch the whole environment, but we end up with fewer files and so it takes less stitching together.

I suppose every kind of new technology requires a learning phase.

Absolutely. We needed to learn how to use the cameras, and how to best position them. For example, when filming the sows that were in cages, we could put the camera on a monopod quite near to them, out of the pigs’ range. But then we tried to film the fattening pens, which contained a group of pigs. Ideally we wanted to put the camera right in the middle of the pen, but we couldn’t because the pigs would knock it over straight away. So we actually had to suspend the cameras on a wire above the pen, in order to get the shot that we really wanted. So, it’s a lot of experimenting.

Why is the virtual reality experience so much more affecting than watching a film?

Personally I think there are two parts to it. Firstly, virtual reality blocks everything else out. Our headsets are top of the line – you don’t see anything else when you put it on, so you’re literally immersed in that environment. We also use noise cancelling headphones, so you’re audibly immersed as well. People do genuinely lose sense of where they are while they’re watching it. They can be in the middle of a noisy Vegfest but they feel as though they’re on the farm.

The second reason I think it’s so powerful is because it attracts a whole new audience – people who might not necessarily watch a traditional film of factory farming footage. These are often people who think they’re not really interested in animal suffering. So for that reason we catch the attention of a lot of people who are more interested in the technology, rather than the message. So it’s often the first time they’ve ever seen that kind of footage, and it has an even stronger impact, because they see it in that immersive format.

How did it feel when you used the iAnimal for the first time?

I was actually really surprised by how real it felt. I’ve been inside loads of factory farms myself and they’re so disgusting, so depressing, so horrible. When I watched the pig video for the first time, I was actually in a meeting with all of my colleagues. I could hear the murmur of the conversation in the background, but I was transported to that farm. I was still crying by the end of it.

That seems to be a common response, from what I’ve seen at events.

The people who haven’t seen that kind of footage before react with shock. The people who have seen similar footage before tend to say, “I’ve seen worse than that.”

The reason for this is that we try to use bog-standard legal practice in the video. That in and of itself is such a selling point. When we’re at universities and places where the audience is fairly sympathetic, we can say, “Everything you can see in that film is standard practice. We have not picked out the bad apples. This is literally as good as it gets in factory farming.”

IAnimal in action

Is there a disclaimer you give out before people put on the headset?

We always tell people what they’re going to see. A lot of people come up and say, “Oh, virtual reality, I’ve been dying to try it!” and they try to take the headset out of our hands. We always tell them, “What you’re going to watch is the life story of factory farmed pigs, from birth to death. It does end in the slaughterhouse, but everything you’ll see in that film is standard legal practice. This is just routine life for animals on a factory farm.”

Do people stick around and ask questions afterwards?

Yes – you can tell that so many people are in shock because they just want to talk. You can almost feel what they’ve taken on. Their body language shows that they’re emotionally drained, and they just ask question after question. Particularly meat eaters – they are who we get the strongest emotional reaction from.

When we take iAnimal to universities, the students often explain that they go for free range or organic. They tend to say that they don’t have a problem with eating meat, but that animals shouldn’t be treated in the way they’ve just seen. We then respond by saying that however the animal is raised, the slaughter is exactly the same, and that there is no legal definition of ‘free range’. At the end of the conversation you often find they come round to your point of view. They might say that they like the taste of veggie food or that they know farming animals is also really bad for the planet. Then they’re on our side, and it’s just a case of pushing them further up the path.

Tell me about the best feedback you’ve had.

Every time we use iAnimal, at any event, we get comments afterwards from people who write or email. People will say, for example, “I’ve tried to get my husband to go vegetarian for years. He would never do it, but he saw your video at the weekend and said he’s never eating meat again.”

Every time we return to the same university or event, people come up and say, “‘I watched this when you were here last time and I’ve been vegan since”, or, “I haven’t eaten meat since.” Getting that kind of feedback honestly makes me want to be out there every day doing it.

What are you working on for the future?

Our first film showed the life and death of pigs. We recently launched a chicken film, which I hope will have a great impact. Some people watch our pig video and say, “I’m so glad it just shows pigs, I only eat chicken.” So we hope to have a huge impact on people who think that somehow eating chicken isn’t as bad as eating another animal. Chickens have the worst lives of any factory farmed animal.

This year, we’re also releasing a dairy video. This will be really interesting for people who can’t understand the cruelty in dairy. We’re all just so brainwashed from the time we’re born to think that cows make milk, without thinking of them being pregnant. We don’t even question how, just like me, they have to have babies first.

How can people get involved with iAnimal?

We have a few groups who we’ve worked with over the years who have actually fundraised for their own headsets. We’ve also got about a dozen headsets available to loan to different groups around the country. If people are interested in borrowing our headsets for events then they can just get in touch and we’ll send them out the information – just email info[at]animalequality[dot]net.

By Elena Orde

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