#302: Walking Through an Abortion Clinic Protest in VR

molly-eaganOne of the most popular VR experiences at Sundance New Frontier this year was Across the Line, which is a piece that simulated what it feels like to walk through an abortion clinic protest line. It was produced by Nonny de la Peña’s Emblematic Group and 371 Productions. It contained a mixture of live-action, 360 video documentary along with a room-scale, CGI recreation of walking past protestors who are calling you everything from a “whore” to “wicked jezebel feminist.” It’s a visceral, emotional, and intense experience, and Molly Eagan was there to talk to people before and after they experienced it. She’s the Vice President of Planned Parenthood Experience, and I had a chance to catch up with her to talk about some of the reactions and how this project came about.


Getting yelled at is generally not an experience that I typically go out of my way in my life to seek out. But I did go out of my way to wait over two hours to see Across the Line at Sundance to see how VR could be used to address hot-button political issues like abortion and protests at Planned Parenthood clinics.

There’s some really powerful cinéma vérité moments in the beginning of the Across the Line experience that show an actual patient getting confronted and pressured by protestors on her way to getting an abortion. The patient is visibly shaken up when the Planned Parenthood doctor comes into the office, and she takes a moment to counsel her on how disturbing it must be to have to deal with protesters in getting there that day.

In the second half of the VR experience, you’re walking across the room-scale space and listening to protestors demean you as you make your way into a virtual Planned Parenthood clinic. You’re on a street, and you walk by about 5-6 different animated CGI characters who start to yell at you as you begin to enter within their range. One by one you walk up to and listen to what each of these people have to say. Molly says that a lot of people think that what’s being said may be scripted, but it’s actually live audio that was captured from around the country and edited into what could be called a VR montage sequence.

It’s really powerful content and I love the concept of the piece, but I couldn’t help but feel that this interactive virtual simulation portion was contrived, which made it difficult to maintain my suspension of disbelief. In an ordinary situation, I’d likely rush past the protestors and not look them in the eye while they were all screaming at me at the same time. But in this VR simulation of the situation, I look each one directly in their eyes as I see computer animated representations of these voices talk to me one at a time. It’s hard not to feel a bit of uncanniness as the NPC characters were clearly on a script with no way to interact with them beyond triggering their vitriol at me.

I found that it was actually easier to feel empathy through a 360 video of someone else’s experience as I sat in the back seat of a car and observed an intense confrontation as if I were a ghost within a omniscient third-person perspective. It’s harder to feel empathy for other people’s situation when you flip into the first-person perspective and you’re interacting with NPC characters who aren’t dynamically reacting to me or have believable body language that indicate me that they’re real. It quickly becomes apparent that I’m in a virtual simulation that’s in no way really plausible, and it broke my sense of presence.

This reinforced Baobab Studio’s Eric Darnell suspicion that there could actually be a tradeoff between empathy and interactivity. As soon as I start to step into the first-person perspective in an interactive environment with NPCs, then it becomes more of a game where I have goals to accomplish. Your mind starts to get more focused on the rules of this virtual simulation and what you can and can not do rather than feeling like you’re actually there interacting with real people. Even though the source of the audio is from real protestors who actually said all of these horrible things, it just feels like you’re in a wax museum listening to robots recite scripted dialog.

There were powerful moments of feeling like I was there in the shoes of a patient and hearing what is said to people around the country, but the technology seemed to be getting in the way of the story. Reggie Watts said on a panel at Sundance that the goal of any technology is for it to completely disappear so that you’re more focused on the content of the experience rather than the technical limitations of it. There were a lot of non-VR people at Sundance who were able to get lost in this experience, but I feel like my VR nerdiness couldn’t help but to start to pick apart the lack of plausibility.

It made think about a lot of questions for how to most maximize the amount of empathy that VR can generate, and here’s a number of open questions:

  • Is it possible to have interactive stories with NPCs that are able to generate empathy? Or does the AI and realistic body language need to get a lot better before we get there?
  • If empathy is the goal, then is it more effective to use the third-person perspective where you’re a ghost without any impact? Or are there experiences where being in the first-person perspective is really the best way?
  • Is it possible cultivate empathy when you’re a character within the story with limited local agency, but no real global agency? Or is it better to be an passive ghost observer?
  • When is it better to capture a moment with live 360 video vs recreating something with CGI?

Overall, I think Across the Line did an amazing job at capturing some real visceral emotions and creating a really powerful experience. Most of the people I saw coming out of it were clearly impacted, and it was an experience that generated a lot of buzz in Park City. It also made a number of people really angry, and the emotion of anger can often lead to action, which is in the end the reaction that Planned Parenthood would want to see. It was an emotionally moving experience for me, and I’m grateful that the creators are pushing the boundaries of storytelling and that it’s brought up a lot of questions around the best practices for designing VR experiences to generate empathy.

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.978] Molly Eagan: My name is Molly Egan. I'm the Vice President of Patient Experience and Employee Engagement at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, public health person. What we did was we met at Sundance, we met Nani De La Pena and her group Emblematic, and separately met another terrific filmmaker group, 371 Productions, Brad Lichtenstein and Jeff Fitzsimmons. And both of them came to us, to Planned Parenthood at the same time, and said, we would love to explore using VR to tell a story of import to Planned Parenthood. And so both of them came to us at the same time, we actually introduced them to each other, and we came up with a piece called Across the Line.

[00:00:54.591] Kent Bye: Great, so maybe you could talk a bit about what happens in Across the Line, and what is the larger message that you were trying to make there?

[00:01:01.320] Molly Eagan: So I think the larger message is really about raising the understanding in the public about the level of harassment and vitriol that happens outside of Planned Parenthood health centers and of course all other abortion providers experience this as well. So I think the general person on the street feels that these protests are typically calm and non-engaging and unfortunately a lot of our patients and our staff experience a great deal of harassment just trying to walk in any of our health centers. So it's really trying to raise the understanding of that across the country.

[00:01:41.781] Kent Bye: So kind of walk through, for people who haven't seen it, what kind of happens in the experience?

[00:01:45.982] Molly Eagan: Yep, so it's actually kind of piloting a new way of showing a story in that the first couple of scenes are shot in 360, and it's just shooting a real scene. You meet a patient who is visibly upset in an exam room. She shares with a doctor who is a real doctor with Planned Parenthood, Dr. Reagan McDonald Mosley. You see them have an exchange and the doctor understands that the patient's been upset by walking through a line of protesters. You see that, you're right in the exam room with them, it's very emotional and tense. And then you shoot back to 20 minutes earlier where she and her friend are driving in the car, so you are in the car with them. And they're approaching the health center and this is not a stage scene, this is a real scene that was shot. So you see protesters surrounding the car and a protester trying to come in and convince the patient. to turn around. And then you're transported from a watcher to actually in her shoes. So you go into a computer generated scene, an animated scene, where you become that person and you get out of the car and you're walking through a very unpleasant situation of protesters with signs and real recorded audio of protesters shouting at you, which is what really happens at some health centers.

[00:03:12.456] Kent Bye: And so what has been the reaction of people here at Sundance experiencing across the line?

[00:03:17.921] Molly Eagan: So I think that has been the most impactful to see. People have incredibly powerful responses. So typically folks will come out, they'll need some decompression time, they'll often share personal stories either that they had to deal with that situation, the violence and the harassment, or they helped a friend. And so they're either very, very moved, they need some time, they want to share their personal stories, or some of them are angry that anybody should have to walk through this. They think about, if I had to walk to work every day and I had to walk through this, it makes them angry. So lots of range of emotions and responses.

[00:03:59.798] Kent Bye: Yeah, and it's kind of an interesting, like, some people I've heard say it made them really angry and, like, want to be violent in some ways. Because you have, like, people who are yelling and you're being in that position of being yelled at. And so when you get yelled at, you sort of want to respond with equal or more force.

[00:04:17.398] Molly Eagan: Yeah, I mean, you know, people, if they go to a space of feeling angry about it, they tend to channel that into, and how can I help? How can I work with you? How can I support my local providers? How can I be of service? So it tends to morph into feelings of anger to, I want to take some action. I want to support you all in some way, which is frankly, you know, also incredibly gratifying to hear.

[00:04:44.951] Kent Bye: And you said that you were here at Sundance last year. Maybe you could talk about kind of how that led to Across the Line.

[00:04:52.256] Molly Eagan: So I personally, it's my first Sundance, so the Planned Parenthood in the last few years has been at Sundance. My wonderful colleague who works with the entertainment industry, Karen Spruck, we're often contacted by creative people, by folks making documentaries. or other kinds of pieces. And they have questions. They want to meet real providers. They want to meet real patients. They want to show us scripts and talk about wanting to make them as real and true as possible. So that's been going on a couple of years. This is the first year that we actually submitted a piece that was happily accepted into the New Frontiers program.

[00:05:35.631] Kent Bye: And so maybe you could tell me a bit about your own experience of seeing some of your first VR and how that led to, you know, thinking that it would be an appropriate thing to potentially use with Planned Parenthood.

[00:05:48.789] Molly Eagan: So I visited Nani de la Pena and her incredible team at Emblematic in LA and saw an earlier cut of her piece, Kia, that focuses around domestic violence. It's also a very, very intense scene and we talked about how important it would be to use this medium to actually try to generate a deeper level of empathy. I also had the opportunity to visit the folks at the Stanford VR Lab and what they shared was very interesting to us that they're looking at the impact of VR on big issues. So they gave an example of homelessness and they said, you know, does a person seeing a flat film about homelessness compared to a VR film about homelessness Is their action, is their empathy, is their kind of motivation stick longer and more in-depth if they see VR? And I think they're getting some interesting results to suggest that it's more of a sticky kind of experience, that people are more drawn into that kind of experience, which of course was interesting to us about this piece, Across the Line.

[00:06:54.923] Kent Bye: And maybe you can talk about your own experience of experiencing that empathy by watching some of these different immersive journalism pieces and virtual reality.

[00:07:05.078] Molly Eagan: So I just, you know, what dawned on me is just the power of really giving the audience an experience. Again, I mentioned that the public doesn't really understand what happens outside of health centers. And I, as a young teenager, went through that experience. And when you are already in a vulnerable moment, to have to go through that level of harassment is incredibly painful and jarring. And so when we realized the power of the VR experience to generate empathy, I thought that it would be important to try to do a piece with these incredible artists to kind of raise the knowledge of that.

[00:07:46.115] Kent Bye: And you mentioned that some people, after the experience across the line, they need some level of support or decompression, and I'm just curious what that, what does that look like?

[00:07:55.517] Molly Eagan: I think we're really learning. I'm really very interested. I know you've seen me here for several days talking to all kinds of people going through the piece, and that's an area of interest for us, is to see what people need as a decompression space. You may recall that the end of the piece has a quiet period before the credits roll of snow falling. It's very quiet and serene, and you're away from that protest activity. So I think we're all just learning what is the best kind of decompression to offer folks.

[00:08:28.314] Kent Bye: Yeah, and what has been the buzz here at Sundance about Across the Line?

[00:08:33.445] Molly Eagan: So, the buzz about Across the Line has been incredible. I've gone to different kinds of events and folks have either seen it or said, how can I see it? I heard the lines were long and I hear it's incredibly impactful. You know, how can I get in to see it? It's been really, I've been amazed at the level of interest, absolutely.

[00:08:55.171] Kent Bye: And what's the story behind the Wicked Jezebel feminist t-shirts?

[00:09:00.878] Molly Eagan: You're good. So one of the lines, as I mentioned before, when you're walking through the protesters, you're actually hearing real recorded audio. In fact, some of the viewers early on came out and said, you know, I think that you went a little over the top with that audio, and I realized they thought we had recorded it in actors. And I said, no, actually, that's the real thing. Those are real recorded voices. So, Wicked Jezebel Feminist is a line that one of the protesters shouts. It's very hostile, very nasty, and we thought that this was a way to kind of reclaim the language and so hence you have some folks walking around with Wicked Jezebel feminist t-shirts and buttons. So that's that story.

[00:09:48.396] Kent Bye: So you said that you've sort of been looking at the issue of empathy and going from Stanford Research Lab talking about it, but what is your take in terms of like why is virtuality a medium that cultivates a sense of empathy?

[00:10:02.410] Molly Eagan: Why? I mean, I'd like to know more about this, which is why we're doing some of this research and these qualitative interviews afterward. I mean, I think there is nothing quite like being in the shoes of another person. And I'm not sure there are a lot of other things out there that really give you this experience of being there. And I know there are many VR pieces that give people experiences of great joy and fun, and they're fantastic, and they're fantasy. But this idea, and of course, Nani is the godmother of this, is this idea of immersive journalism, that you really can use this to put yourself truly in another person's shoes.

[00:10:47.467] Kent Bye: And so what's been one of your more surprising things about this experience here at Sundance?

[00:10:54.384] Molly Eagan: I am thrilled that VR is just, it seems to be absolutely taking off the level of interest. I had no idea there would be this level of interest in all of the pieces out here in the New Frontiers exhibit. It's really outstanding. Surprising how, when people are in VR experiences, how their bodies, they talk about their bodies truly reacting. hearts racing, you know, that it's having an actual physical and emotional impact on folks. I guess I knew that about myself, but I'm seeing that confirmed as people come out of these experiences talking about it.

[00:11:34.423] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's a certain tendency as you're walking through the experience to want to just kind of rush through and get by all the uncomfortable parts, but I think one of the things you told me was to really look into the eyes of the protesters. So talk a bit about like why do you recommend that?

[00:11:50.208] Molly Eagan: Well, I mean, I think so. We may have talked about this before, but the first time we showed this piece to a few folks, their inclination, because you can imagine if there's a group of hostile people coming at you and shouting at you, your inclination for many people, I should say, is to look down and move out of there. And what happens is that we have people slow down and say, you know, you can take off the goggles at any time if you're uncomfortable. But if you want to kind of engage in what the experience is for so many people who have to walk through these lines every day, walk through, look in the eyes, and hear the audio and really experience it, I think it's important that people are aware that this is out there in different places on any given day across the country. So I think that's been impactful.

[00:12:41.057] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think one of the things that is interesting is that usually this is an experience that women have, and so I'm curious what kind of reactions men that have gone through this experience have had?

[00:12:52.418] Molly Eagan: Yeah, it's been fascinating. So the men who have gone through often tell stories about escorting friends, family, feeling like, you know, they wanted to, I've seen lots of folks, particularly men kind of reach out and try to push against the animated characters as if, you know, back off. But it evokes a lot of personal feelings for folks. I mean, we talk about one in five women has been to a Planned Parenthood in her lifetime, and many of those women come with support, friends and family, and so this evokes a lot of personal stories for them as well.

[00:13:30.541] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think one of the things that you mentioned to me as well is that not every woman that's walking into Planned Parenthood is necessarily getting an abortion. But the protesters don't necessarily know that, so they're kind of treating everybody as if they were.

[00:13:45.543] Molly Eagan: There's harassment widespread, and I think whether a patient is accessing an abortion at a health center, at Planned Parenthood or any of the other abortion providers, or going for contraception or, well, women care, you know, lots of men come to Planned Parenthood for a number of services, and you have the staff that work there that literally walk through that every single day. So there's a wide variety of folks who experience that.

[00:14:14.780] Kent Bye: So what's next with this experience? We're here at Sundance, it's on the Vive, and is this something that you're going to continually show, or is this something that's going to be released, or what's next for Crossing Line?

[00:14:26.348] Molly Eagan: So what's next for Across the Line is, you may have known that the documentary Trapped by Don Porter, it's a documentary that's premiering at Sundance. It's about the experience of abortion providers in this country and what they experience. And really fortunately what we've talked to with Dawn and her team is as they go around and show trapped all across the country for us to do some tag teaming because her piece talks about the experience of providers and our piece shows an experience for patients and staff. So we're hoping to do that. We're certainly talking to lots of folks about how to get it in another more easily accessible kind of version to take around because, of course, we have affiliates across the country, all of whom are saying, how can I see this piece? How can I show our supporters and our communities across the line?

[00:15:19.140] Kent Bye: Yeah, and my understanding as well is that Across the Line was initiated before really becoming a hot button issue. And so talk about that, like from the beginning into like all the other political contexts in which this now exists.

[00:15:33.403] Molly Eagan: You're absolutely right that the discussions and the planning and beginning of work on Across the Line happened in the springtime, well before any of the events with the smear video campaign, or certainly the tragic shooting in Colorado Springs. Across the Line was well toward completion before that, of course. It did remind us all painfully that this issue of violence and harassment in front of health centers, we have to do something to raise awareness and stop it.

[00:16:07.263] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:16:14.408] Molly Eagan: Oh, you know, I'm still in that kind of light bulbs going off kind of space. I'm being here for the first time and seeing the power of VR really and all of its forms. I think it has amazing opportunities for education. We've talked about ways that it could educate folks about their bodies. using it across the country with really education as well as kind of empathy, training of staff. There's lots of things that we talked about because it is so incredibly powerful.

[00:16:47.643] Kent Bye: Okay, anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:16:51.171] Molly Eagan: I think the only thing that comes to mind and I just had a terrific conversation with somebody down in front of the across the line piece that there's a lot of folks that are making this content who are very technical and of course very interested in all the technological advances around VR and we talked about the power of of really putting those folks together with folks that are less involved, like myself, people that are coming at it from different perspectives so that we can have cross-cutting conversations about the power when we all work together on pieces. So trying to create venues where the technical speak is translated for folks that see the power of VR to tell stories, or theater folks or other kinds of storytellers to bring those folks together to talk about what's next for VR.

[00:17:41.575] Kent Bye: Okay, great. Well, thank you so much.

[00:17:44.297] Molly Eagan: You're welcome. Thanks.

[00:17:46.218] Kent Bye: And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash voices of VR.

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