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30 January 2017

Could virtual reality help improve the lives of farm animals?

A new immersive environment, iAnimal, places the viewer inside a factory farm. So why am I still eating chicken?

By Amelia Tait

There is a dying chicken at my feet, desperately struggling to breathe. I can see its crooked feathers slowly rise and fall, and feel my breathing become more laboured in response. My heart is pounding as I watch the chicken – one of hundreds surrounding me – fighting for life.

In truth, the chicken is not in front of me, not really, because I am sitting in the comfort of my office, watching its life – and death – on a virtual reality (VR) headset. The bulky device covers my eyes and I can move my head all around to see the factory farm it is showing me from various angles.

“Every single person who watches it is shocked,” says Toni Shephard, the executive director of the animal advocacy organisation Animal Equality, which has developed iAnimal, an immersive, 360-degree view of the meat industry. After premiering a video of a pig slaughterhouse at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2016, the charity created a video following the lives of factory-farmed chickens.

“We film all of this from the animal’s eye level, so you actually feel like you’re in the flock of chickens,” Shephard says. “It’s completely different to watching it on a flat screen. You do genuinely feel like you’re there.”

Animal Equality is just one of many organisations now using advances in VR technology to campaign for a better world. In 2015, the United Nations unveiled a virtual reality app that allows ordinary people to experience humanitarian tragedies such as the Syrian refugee crisis, the ebola outbreak and the Nepalese earthquake. On its website, it claims to be “pushing the bounds of empathy”.

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But can virtual reality revolutionise activism through empathy? Shephard certainly thinks so, arguing that iAnimal has been the most effective tool she has seen in her 20 years of campaigning. “With a flat screen, it’s your natural instinct to look away if something terrible is happening, but you can’t with this. Most people don’t close their eyes because they’re too engaged.” But even though I was distressed watching chickens hung by their feet and having their throats slit one by one, I have eaten chicken since.

Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale, and the author of Against Empathy: the Case for Rational Compassion, is wary of using “empathy technology” for political campaigns. Speaking to the technology news network the Verge last month, he argued that, “it’s a deep mistake to assume that if we could feel more, then the world would turn out OK and we would do the right thing. Not everything is the job of the individual citizen.”

Animal Equality is aware of this criticism of the technology and, as well as taking iAnimal to offices and universities, it had a booth at most of the big party conferences last year (the Conservative Party refused the charity a spot). “Most MPs have never been in a factory farm, or if they have it’s a pristine, preannounced visit,” says Shephard, who reveals that the charity enters farms at night to film. “We wanted to start the conversation about whether [British farming] is something we should be proud of.”

She reports that iAnimal has had great success with both politicians and the public. “Every time we do a university you get at least ten students out of 200 who say that’s it, they’re going vegetarian,” she says. “We get comments like ‘I’m not going to be able to eat meat again’, almost in an angry way!”

With this technology, Shephard explains, the group can make contact with people beyond their usual reach. “They’re not particularly interested in animal welfare but they stop to try VR,” she says. “Men want to try it more than women. At two-day events women come up to us the next day and say, ‘I’ve been trying for years to get my husband to stop eating meat and after watching the video he said he won’t eat it again. Thank you!’ I’d like to think we’ve saved a few marriages.”

I don’t doubt that iAnimal has many success stories, as I had heart palpitations while watching the video. Yet in many ways the technology is limited. The headset is heavy, Shephard admits that people can become dizzy when wearing it, and occasionally the lens even fogs up.

Animal Equality is exploring advances in virtual reality technology, however. Though it might be a long way off, Shephard would love to be able to replicate the smell of a factory farm, which she describes as “soul-destroying”. She wants to experiment with augmented reality – whereby viewers would be able to interact with the farm around them – and she also hopes that, as VR becomes more common and everyone has his or her own headset, iAnimal can have a wider reach.

Yet though technology may continue to advance for years to come, can human beings? Many caring professionals, such as therapists, nurses, police officers and animal welfare workers, develop what is known as “compassion fatigue”, whereby they feel hopelessness and anxiety rather than motivation as a result of their experiences. So can technology really make us more empathetic, or will we, too, feel more compassion fatigue when the novelty fades, and therefore less empathy?

I watched a chicken die at my feet and then, later that night, I ate another. Did the technology fail, or did I? If it’s the former, then I’m sure a little tinkering can change everything. If it’s the latter, we may have to stop looking at what’s inside our headsets, and instead consider what’s inside our heads.

Amelia Tait writes for

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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West