Van Jones And Jamie Wong Use VR To Tell The Story Of The Prison System

In Project Empathy, you take the point of view of an eight-year-old girl whose mom is being arrested. Can it make you feel more of a connection with the millions of Americans in the U.S. penal system?

In an average-sized kindergarten classroom in the U.S., at least one child may have a parent behind bars. But most Americans still struggle to imagine what it’s like to have an incarcerated father or mother. A new short film tries to make it clearer: strap on a virtual reality headset, and the film puts you in the place of an eight-year-old girl watching her mom go to prison, and ending up in foster care.


The short, Left Behind, is the first in a series of virtual reality films called Project Empathy. The first films start with the prison system, letting viewers experience re-entry into society, what it’s like to be a child tried as an adult, and what it’s like to have a family member in prison.

“Virtual reality is being referred to as the empathy machine, and there’s really no bigger empathy gap than the one that exists between people who live in overly policed and overly incarcerated communities and those who do not,” says Van Jones, who worked with filmmaker Jamie Wong on the first films. “We just want to do everything that we can to give people more of a felt sense of what it’s like to live in a situation where law enforcement is not always friendly, and where the stakes for any mistake are incredibly high.”

Wong, a former producer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and a tech company founder, had started experimenting with virtual reality when she happened to sit next to Jones on a British Airways “hackathon in the sky” flight; Jones was interested in using VR in politics.

“We were particularly interested in using it in criminal justice, where it’s needed most,” Wong says. “I always think that a really way to test a technology, test a hypothesis, is to test it in its toughest application. So to create empathy for those in the prison system is a huge challenge, which makes it really exciting for both of us.”

While a growing number of people are attempting to use virtual reality to build empathy for social issues, the project will be the first to talk about social impact in a narrative format, with actors and a script from Wendy Calhoun, co-executive producer of Empire.

“The technical limitations of VR coupled with our growing appetite for shorter, higher quality content opens up a huge opportunity for scripted content to help us more quickly and honestly convey an emotional truth and illicit emotional responses, that lead to empathy,” she says. “It allows us to go straight for the heartspace.”


In Left Behind, you watch from the perspective of the eight-year-old girl as your mother is arrested. “She gets caught selling drugs, we think, but as the eight-year-old girl, we’re not quite sure,” Wong says. “We don’t believe that our mother could possibly do such a thing. We experience an arrest, and visitation in prison, and then finally spending the rest of our childhood in foster care.”

Each detail is intended to make the experience as realistic as possible. The camera height is always at the average height of an eight-year-old. The sound score also helps with immersion.

Though VR is relatively new and evolving technology, some early research suggests that it can affect empathy. At Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, some experiments have shown that VR does produce at least short-term effects; the lab is currently working on a longer-term study with 1,000 participants.

“Your brain actually believes you’re somewhere else, which is unique to this medium,” says Wong. “That doesn’t happen watching a film or listening to music. Because of that there’s a suspension of disbelief, at a much more powerful level . . . you’re more vulnerable and susceptible to the experience being created around you. That vulnerability extends to your emotions as well as your reason.”

Watching a VR film, if you hear gunshots from the side, you’ll jump; unlike watching a video on YouTube, you can’t see from your peripheral vision that you’re not actually in the scene.


Before the technology develops and begins to spread–few people own VR headsets yet–Wong believes it’s a good time to test the hypothesis that virtual reality can truly impact how people feel about an issue like incarceration.

“I think the skepticism around it is really healthy, because we shouldn’t just take for granted that this is going to solve all our problems and the empathy gap we have in politics and the compassion for one another,” she says. “But it is a tool that I think is leaps and bounds advancing us forward, ahead of other tools that we’ve had. I think it’s an opportunity, and now it’s a matter of figuring out how we can use that tool.”

Project Empathy plans to work with researchers to try to measure the impact of the films. After a premiere today as part of The Atlantic’s Race and Justice Summit, the film will tour various festivals and will be shown in places such as juvenile hall.

In March 2017, a nonprofit partner, The Dream Corps, will use volunteers to deliver VR headsets to state capitols, and ask policymakers to watch the shorts.

“I think that the politicians who vote for these very long sentences and larger prisons need to have more of an understanding about the impact of their actions,” says Jones. “So few politicians have actually ever gone into a prison or sat in a hall of justice at 8:30 in the morning on a Tuesday when families are being torn apart for minor drug convictions. So if we can’t bring them to those situations, we want to bring the situations to them.”

For Jones, it’s an obvious way to make use of a technology that’s still better known for gaming. “I just think that all of these technological developments should be used at least in part for social good,” he says. “Virtual reality has such a big impact on the human mind it’s almost indistinguishable from reality–why should we only use it for video games, sports, and pornography? We should use powerful tools for powerful purposes.”


Find a screening here.

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[All Photos: Kristyna Archer]


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."