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Walk in a prisoner's shoes with virtual reality filmmaking

Walk in a prisoner's shoes with virtual reality filmmaking

It is no secret that the United States has a mass incarceration problem. While the U.S. represents 4.4 percent of the world's population, it houses 22 percent of the world's prisoners. In 2014 a Rutgers University studyreported that more than 2.7 million, or 1 in 28, children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent. Of these kids, Black children are the most affected, as 11.4% (1 in 9) have a parent in prison, in comparison to white children at 1.8% (1 in 57). Further, a Central Connecticut State University study published in 2015 found that children with incarcerated parents are three times more likely than those without incarcerated parents to be arrested, convicted, or incarcerated in the justice system themselves.

These facts and figures translate into the U.S. not only having a mass incarceration problem, but a crisis of Black and Brown people finding themselves caught up in the vicious cycle that is the criminal justice system from youth to old age at an alarming rate. Yet, even with these facts and studies available to the public, the message that far too many people of color are held captive in prison can fall on deaf ears.

Yet, now there exists a way for audiences to experience this crisis first hand. Project Empathy, a virtual reality (VR) film series, explores the U.S. prison system. Through three virtual reality films by award-winning directors, the project invites audiences to walk in someone else's shoes, in order to better understand mass incarceration in America.

Virtual Reality (VR) film and content is quickly gaining traction in the entertainment industry, as companies such as Oculus, Sony, HTC, Samsung, and Google are creating total immersion experiences in 360 degrees that viewers can have right in the comfort of their own homes. VR is an immersive experience in which your head movements, through the use of a VR headset, are tracked in a three-dimensional world. While this technology has mainly been used for video games so far, filmmakers, such as those working with Project Empathy, are using it as a means to immerse audiences in the Black and imprisoned experience.

Left Behind, the second piece in the series, is a scripted short film shown through the eyes of a 9-year-old Black girl. You watch, and experience, what begins as a normal day in the park quickly unravel into tragedy as the girl's mother is arrested and taken to prison. The audience experiences the heartbreaking prison visit between mother and daughter, along with the loneliness the girl feels in the group foster home she must now live in since her mother is incarcerated. The film premiered on Sept. 15th at The Atlantic's Race+Justice Summit in Los AngelesAfter the premiere, Jamie Wong, Creative Director and Executive Producer of Project Empathy, and the film's director, Wendy Calhoun, took to the stage to talk about the project.

Calhoun, who is currently the Co-Executive producer for the hit television series Empire, also wrote the script for Left Behind. "We don't hear enough of these stories that give voice to women and mothers," Calhoun explained at the premier. Although the film is fictional it was explained by Calhoun and Wong that it is a composite of dozens of interviews conducted during the film's research process that included inmates, their children, prison staff, and police officers. "This [crisis] is happening to children all over the nation but no dialogue is being given to it," the director explained.

Wong, who also wrote and directed the first project in the Project Empathy series "The Letter", explained why there is a need for more narratives from women of color. "It is intuitive to tell stories from women of color because I am a woman of color. Women need opportunities to do work like this. Project Empathy's core aim is to break down the divide between "us" and "them."

Susan Burton, Founder and Executive Director of A New Way of Life- a re-entry project that seeks to advance multi-dimensional solutions to the effects of incarceration- also spoke at the premiere. "Black children are disproportionately impacted," Burton explained. "[There are] really traumatic layers of all this on women. What do we do instead of all this damage [of mass incarceration]? The history of this country is built upon tearing apart African-American women from their children since slavery. Eight in 10 women in jail are mothers. Generations of mothers and daughters are incarcerated in the same institution," the executive director stated.

Connecting the existence of the film to the continued struggle against police brutality, a struggle being led byBlack Lives Matter, Calhoun expressed, "The movement [Black Lives Matter] has gotten me fired up. Through new technologies we can now get the message to people directly. The movement gives me the fuel. It helps craft the stories I want to tell."

On the road forward with VR and social impact Wong said, "We know we are building a model that can be effective across all types of social issue." Burton added, "Training, legal support, patience, and a range of things to heal from the trauma of mass incarceration is needed. We need to strengthen the 'nation of mothers.' We need to end this crisis of mass incarceration and heal as a country."

Photo: Screen shot from the film that can be found on

See What I See: Virtual Reality as a Conduit for Empathy and Criminal Justice Reform

See What I See: Virtual Reality as a Conduit for Empathy and Criminal Justice Reform

Katherine E. Freeman, 20 September 2016

Slip on a pair of goggles and virtual reality can send you anywhere. One second you’re in your living room furnished with that couch you found on the corner of the street and the next you’re touring Los Angeles or right there in the 2016 NBA finals watching LeBron James lead Cleveland to victory. Now, virtual reality can also send you to prison.

Project Empathy won’t actually lead to incarceration, but it is a virtual reality program designed to allow people to experience what it is like for those who are incarcerated. The project all started when Jamie Wong, a technology entrepreneur, producer, and director, met Van Jones on a flight to London. Although the two had never met before, they instantly clicked and began to discuss ways that virtual reality could be used to impact change on society. In discussing the project with PCMag, Wong noted that the discussion “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.”

The Project is designed to highlight the “four most pivotal moments that define the prison experience–vulnerability, sentencing, lockup and solitary confinement” and encourage others to understand the realities of incarceration. Particularly, Project Empathy’s goal is for legislators to understand that the decisions made in the isolation of their meetings have profound effects on millions of people and families. To do this, the team plans to send out “Ambassadors of Empathy” with Virtual Reality headsets to the capitals of all fifty states and to Capitol Hill on March 1, 2017 with the hope that experiencing incarceration through virtual reality will inspire legislators to effect substantial changes within the criminal justice system.

There has been little action on the part of legislators and all government to rectify the issue of mass incarceration in the United States. While numerous low-level drug offenders have been pardonedand released by President Obama, everyone seems to hesitate when it comes to across the board reformation, particularly reformation of the way violent offenders are punished. Many legislators still cling to a “tough on crime” ideology, as do prosecutors.

John Plaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, theorizes that part of what contributes to mass incarceration is the view of the prosecutor’s job as a “launch-pad position” for political aspirations. As Plaff explains, from 1998 to 2004 prosecutor’s decisions to incite felony charges on an arrestee rose from 1 in 3 arrestees to 2 in 3. This “tough-on crime” status is eagerly maintained by overzealous prosecutors for the sake of their political image, leading to a prison population that continues to grow despite the fact that crime rates are going down. One of the keys to reducing mass incarceration, therefore, is to target the district attorney in reformation efforts and, most importantly, to show both legislators and attorneys what their rigid adherence to the concept of “tough-on-crime” actually results in.

The very phrase “tough-on-crime” allows politicians and district attorneys to distance themselves from the people they affect with their decisions. Rather than acknowledging that they are making decisions that will strip individuals of their liberty for years and perhaps for the rest of their life, they are able to frame it as if they are merely targeting the broad concept of crime. They remove the human element from the equation to avoid acknowledging the human consequences.

It is time for legislators and other officials to move beyond this isolated decision making process and come face to face with the reality of those whom they affect.

Project Empathy provides an astounding resource to connect legislators and district attorneys to the human beings subject to the mercy- or lack thereof- of the criminal justice system.  It allows individuals watching the Virtual Reality videos in the Project Empathy series to stand in the shoes of a man in solitary confinement and read a letter his young son has written him or in the place of a young girl left to live in a group home when her mother is arrested and incarcerated on a first time drug offense. It takes case files, prisoner numbers, and statistics and turns them into fully fleshed human beings with families and lives that are irrevocably changed by the criminal justice system. Through Project Empathy, virtual reality can become more than just a new way to experience video games; virtual reality can become a way to engineer social and legal reform.

Seven Days in Solitary: Our Weekly Roundup of News and Views on Solitary Confinement

Seven Days in Solitary: Our Weekly Roundup of News and Views on Solitary Confinement


SEPTEMBER 18, 2016

• The Kansas Court of Appeals has ordered a lower court to consider the constitutionality of extended stays in administrative segregation. Cledith Bohanon, who filed the lawsuit, has been in the box at Hutchinson Correctional Facility for the past 850 days.

• The Daily Beast told the story of Benjamin Van Zandt, who at 17 was sentenced to 12 years in prison for setting a house on fire, and sent into New York’s prison system. “There he was raped, extorted, forced to mule drugs, sent to solitary confinement, and deprived of the medication required to keep him stable” – and ultimately committed suicide.

• A medical examiner has determined that a Black man who died in solitary confinement in a Milwaukee prison last April suffered from severe dehydration. Terrill Thomas, 38, had a history of mental illness; the water tap in his cell was reportedly shut off because he had previously flooded his cell. Terrill’s death was ruled a homicide.

• A new virtual reality project will seek to make a series of videos about life on the inside to foster empathy with people in prison. TakePart reports: “Based on true stories of Americans affected by incarceration, the videos, [project co-manager Jamie] Wong said, explore ‘the four most pivotal moments that define the prison experience’—vulnerability, sentencing, lockup, and solitary confinement—through the eyes of different characters.”

• A UK court has ruled that alleged British hacker Lauri Love will face extradition to the United States, a move which has greatly concerned his family and support network. “Lauri has very severe and very well-documented mental health issues,” his lawyer said in the past. “In the U.S., when you’re on suicide watch, they put you into solitary confinement.”

Project Empathy – Films sur l’incarcération en réalité virtuelle

Project Empathy – Films sur l’incarcération en réalité virtuelle

Project Empathy – Films sur l’incarcération en réalité virtuelle

Tarik H 17 septembre 2016 CinémaRVVidéos Ecrire un commentaire

La réalité virtuelle est déjà reconnue pour son immense potentiel immersif, ainsi, en partageant directement le point de vue d’un protagoniste, l’utilisateur voit comme une personne fictionnelle voit, entend comme elle entend, complètement coupé du monde, il peut alors ressentir ce qu’elle ressent. Déjà de nombreux créateurs ont compris et utilisent cette technologie unique pour partager des choses et pas seulement dans le cadre du divertissement, mais aussi dans un but plus humain. Project Empathy cherche a partager cette humanité en réalité virtuelle en proposant de vivre ce que vivent les personnes touchées par le monde carcéral, directement en étant incarcéré ou indirectement en ayant un proche en prison. 

On sait qu’il y a de plus en plus de personnes incarcérées dans le monde, à tel point que de nombreux pays manquent de plus en plus de place dans leur prison, petit fait intéressant, aux Etats-Unis, la plupart des adolescents en prison ont aussi l’un de leur parent incarcéré. De plus, il est très difficile pour un ancien taulard de trouver un travail stable après sa peine, voir même un logement ou autre.


Ces nombreuses difficultés sont issues premièrement d’une grande incompréhension de la par du grand public sur le monde carcéral, bien sûr, le grand public à de nombreuses façons de comprendre un peu mieux ce monde, comme à travers la littérature, les films ou séries ou encore les documentaires. Mais il est vrai qu’une expérience en réalité virtuelle peut vraiment offrir une compréhension et une immersion bien plus forte que le reste des médias.

Ainsi, c’est ce que pense Van Jones et le réalisateur Jamie Wong, qui ont lancé une série de films en réalité virtuelle et à 360°, ces films sont donc centrés sur le monde carcéral et proposent de découvrir ce dernier à travers des petites histoires et différents personnages.

« Les possibilités techniques de la VR couplées avec notre appétit croissant pour les formats courts et des contenus de qualité supérieures de qualité supérieure ouvrent de nouvelles opportunités : il est plus facile en passant par ce support de transmettre rapidement et honnêtement de véritables émotions, qui mènent à l’empathie. La VR permet d’accéder directement au cœur », affirme Wandy Calhoun qui est co-executive producer d’Empire et qui a aussi participé au projet Project Empathy.

Le tout premier film de cette série du Project Empathy vient de sortir et se nomme Left Behind. Dans Left Behind, vous pouvez suivre l’histoire d’une jeune fille de 8 ans qui vie la dure réalité du monde carcérale. En effet elle découvre ce monde, avec nous, en voyant sa mère être incarcérée, alors qu’elle même est placée en famille d’accueil. Sachez que vous pourrez voir le film avec ou sans casque, en 360° et que vous pouvez switcher entre les deux modes d’un simple clic.

Ces petits morceaux de vie sont bien écrits et particulièrement informatifs sur ce monde dur à vivre et à voir. Nous sommes pressés de voir le reste de la série de film de Project EmpathyVous pouvez retrouver la vidéo ici.

La VR comme dispositif d’empathie

La VR comme dispositif d’empathie



Situations de guerre, conflits, maladies mentales… aujourd’hui nul besoin de se rendre à l’autre bout du monde pour comprendre l’autre et ce qu’il vit. Il suffit de se transposer dans le virtuel et tout simplement vivre, ressentir…

La plupart des enfants emprisonnés aux Etats-Unis ont en général un de leur parent incarcéré. Difficile pour les personnes extérieures à ce genre de situations de comprendre ce qui peut se passer dans la tête de ces jeunes adolescents et de comprendre la violence qui sommeille en eux. Littérature, films, documentaires, sont sortis sur le sujet, pour autant le lecteur et le spectateur ne peuvent jamais réellement réduire les distances sociales. Aujourd’hui, un média le permet : la réalité virtuelle. L’utilisateur peut désormais s’immerger au cœur d’une atmosphère, se tenir à côté du sujet, voire même l’incarner. Un outil de plus en plus utilisé, car en réduisant les frontières, seule l’empathie peut émerger. C’est en ce sens que Van Jones et le réalisateur Jamie Wong ont lancé Project Empathy : une série de petit film à vivre en immersion virtuelle. Le premier de la série se nomme Left Behind : il suit le parcours d’une jeune fille qui à 8 huit ans a vu sa mère se faire emprisonner, puis a été placée en famille d’accueil pour enfin finir en prison. L’utilisateur incarne cette jeune fille.

« Les possibilités techniques de la VR couplées avec notre appétit croissant pour les formats courts et des contenus de qualité supérieures de qualité supérieure ouvrent de nouvelles opportunités : il est plus facile en passant par ce support de transmettre rapidement et honnêtement de véritables émotions, qui mènent à l’empathie», déclare Wandy Calhoun (co-executive producer of Empire) qui a participé au projet. « «La VR permet d’accéder directement au cœur »

Chaque détail est destiné à rendre l’expérience aussi réaliste que possible. La caméra est toujours placée à la hauteur moyenne d’un enfant huit ans. La bande sonore contribue également à l’immersion. « Votre cerveau croit réellement que vous êtes ailleurs, ce qui est exceptionnel», conclut Jamie Wong. Ce dernier prévoit d’ailleurs de faire analyser les données physiologiques et physiques des « cobayes » pour mesurer l’impact du film.

Un processus de plus en plus courant. La journaliste Nonny de la Peña est à l’initiative du Project Syria qui immerge l’utilisateur en Syrie. En fonction des séquences, celui-ci peut évoluer dans les rues d’Alep juste avant la terrible explosion de 2012 survenue deux heures après une manifestation en faveur de la démocratie ou visiter un camp de réfugiés. Toutes les images et les sons sont tirés de véritables vidéos et photographies prises sur les lieux. En 2012, sur le même mode que Project Syria, elle a signé Hunger in Los Angeles : un procédé immersif qui permet à l’utilisateur de se sensibiliser à la famine au cœur même de L.A.

The Enemy. Experience VR

En France est né le très beau projet The Enemy : imaginée par Karim Ben Khelifa, correspondant de guerre et photojournaliste,  il s’agit d’une installation en réalité virtuelle qui rompt avec l’imagerie de la guerre telle que les médias nous l’ont montrée jusqu’ici. Les utilisateurs évoluent au centre d’un face-à-face entre deux combattants et expérimentent un cadre différent pour comprendre certains des conflits les plus longs de l’Histoire contemporaine. Leurs réactions physiologiques sont enregistrées afin de quantifier l’empathie générée par des chercheurs au MIT.

Plus récemment, The Guardian et The Mill Studio se sont associés pour créer une expérience immersive qui vous plonge en prison, directement en cellule d’isolement.


Race + Justice:  An Atlantic Summit

Race + Justice: An Atlantic Summit

The Atlantic was in Los Angeles to explore the changing narrative of race and identity in this country. In our second annual Race + Justice summit we convened civic leaders, activists, artists, policymakers and storymakers for a day of unflinching conversation. The summit unfolded in multiple chapters, as we try to answer the questions: Who is California? Where is Home? What is Justice? and Whose Story Gets Told?

Experience what it’s like to be in prison with this virtual reality film series

Experience what it’s like to be in prison with this virtual reality film series

Project Empathy, which bills itself as the “first virtual reality series for social impact,” enables viewers to experience the U.S. prison system through the eyes of people who’ve been affected first-hand. By tackling real-life issues through an immersive 3D, 360-degree experience, it aims to educate Americans about the system’s harsh realities, and ultimately make a meaningful push for reform.