#1070: How Princeton & Games for Change are Using VR Storytelling to Start Conversations on Nuclear Non-Proliferation with “On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World)”

On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World) is now available for free on Oculus, and it’s a must-watch immersive story that won the best XR Experience at SXSW. It’s a three-part series that dives into the broader implications of a false missile alert sent to 1.4 million people in Hawaiʻi on January 13th 2018, which grounded the abstract concepts of nuclear non-proliferation into a viscerally embodied and human story about the realities of potential nuclear annihilation.

I’ve previously covered the first of three episodes at Sundance in a Voices of VR Episode #1047 discussion with the developers and impact producers, as well as in another chat featuring one of the co-writers and Indigenous poet Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio in Episode #1064.

The Morning You Wake manages to translate a very abstract topic into a very personal story that manages to ground the existential threat of nuclear annihilation into an embodied experience as we hear about the range of reactions to this event, which is described in the piece as “nothing happened, but everything changed.” The threat of a nuclear exchange is also unfortunately even more timely as Putin put his Nuclear Deterrent Forces on High Alert on February 27th just days after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th.

I had a chance to briefly meet Alexander Glaser at the SXSW premiere of episodes #2 & #3, and he is at The Program on Science and Global Security based in the School of Public & International Affairs at Princeton University. In late 2016 and early 2017 after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Glaser’s work in Nuclear Non-Proliferation started to take on addition urgency as President Trump was starting to make threatening statements about North Korea like on August 8th, 2017 when he told the press, “They will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

It was around this time when Glaser reached out to Games for Change Susanna Pollack on a grant proposal for a VR application that could be used to connect diplomats to technical experts, and their collaboration evolved into using VR technologies to be able to tell a human story about the existential threat of nuclear weapons, which they settled upon the January 13th 2018 false ballistic missile event in Hawaiʻi as the best way to ground huge geo-political issues into very personal and relatable stories of crisis and mortality.

I wanted to follow up with an interview with Glaser and Pollack to get a bit more context on the origins of this project, learn more about how the previous project Notes on Blindness was a catalyst for this project, but also how they’re planning to use it in a number of different impact campaigns to use VR and the power of immersive storytelling to help further the discussion about this topic.

They’re going to be collaborating with a number of existing nuclear non-proliferation movements and organizations, and this VR piece were serve as a tool to help set a shared context to the embodied realities of an issue of nuclear anxiety that’s easy to disassociate from or imagine that the game theoretic dimensions of mutually assured destruction surely will never actually happen. But as the false ballistic missile alert in Hawaiʻi showed, and as the moving nuclear deterrence to high alerts in Russia indicate, then there are no guarantees that the world is immune for either deliberately or accidentally transgressing past some unknown threshold to trigger a nuclear exchange.

As part of Glaser’s work at Princeton, he created a chilling wargaming simulation that he posted to YouTube where it’s collected over 3 million views that he describes by saying, “Our team developed a simulation for a plausible escalating war between the United States and Russia using realistic nuclear force postures, targets and fatality estimates. It is estimated that there would be more than 90 million people dead and injured within the first few hours of the conflict.”

It’s one thing to watch this YouTube video, and then it’s quite another to see a similar situation modelled in Virtual Reality spatially all while there are veiled nuclear threats being talked about as a possible future that is similar enough to the false alert that 1.4 million people in Hawaiʻi lived through. So On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World) carries an additional urgency and less abstracted context than it originally did when I first saw Episode #1 in January, and I wanted to get a bit more context from Glaser about some of the next viable steps for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and how he sees that an immersive story like this could help push forward this discussion in both the public and policy spheres.

Games for Change will be touring around this piece at different events over the next 12-18 months, and Susanna Pollack gave a bit of a sneak peak for what is being planned for this piece that has now taken on a lot more relevance in the political spheres in a zeitgeist moment that has the potential to deepen the conversation into more radical approaches to nuclear non-proliferation that Glaser speculates may be required to really move the needle on this issue. But it’s a massively huge issue with so many different entanglements amongst other political, economic, and cultural issues as Dr. Osorio points out in Episode #1064.

But now that this experience available for free on Oculus, then you can run your own impact campaigns by watching it, spreading the work, and sharing it with people who you think will resonate with the story. I found it deeply moving and emotional, and there are a number of resources affirmations that the team has on their Get Involved section on their website, but also the Impact Producer Michaela Ternasky-Holland discusses some of these more at the end of our discussion in Episode #1047.

Above and beyond being a really well-told story, this project is also masterfully technically executing being able to somehow magically fit 45-minutes of volumetric storytelling into on immersive experience. I had the opportunity to serve on the jury for SXSW, and we ended up selecting this as a standout winner amongst the 11 other experiences in competition. I collaborated on helping to write up a SXSW XR Jury statement along with Loren Hammonds and Nonny de la Peña about this project that I’ll share here as a conclusion:

ON THE MORNING YOU WAKE (TO THE END OF THE WORLD) is an emotionally impactful and beautifully told story, delivered with stunning technical craftsmanship. This project explores the potential of immersive experiences, refining the grammar of spatial narrative. This particular story deals with the urgency of nuclear disarmament that has very unfortunately come into sharp focus due to current events. It effectively presents a massive geopolitical issue and grounds it in emotional and personal stories, translating what are usually abstract concepts into an embodied context.


Here’s the trailer for On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World)

This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So in today's episode, it's actually going to be the third podcast I've done on On the Morning You Wake to the End of the World, because not only is it an amazing story, but it's also being released today. And the backstory to it's also super fascinating, because Susan Pollack from Games for Change got an email from Alexander Glasser. He's actually at Princeton University at this program on science and global security. There was originally a pitch for doing this VR application to have diplomats start to engage with public leaders. It was right around the time that Donald Trump was coming into office, so there were a lot more fears and discussion around the global security circles around these issues of nuclear nonproliferation and how that was even more of a relevant issue. This is a project they've been working on for about six years and pulled on the creators of Notes on Blindness from both Atlas V as well as Archer's Mark. and just put together an amazing three-part series. In this conversation, I wanted to get a little bit more of the backstory of how this project came about, but also to just ask some questions around these issues of nuclear nonproliferation. There's a lot of questions that are coming up when you watch this piece. Again, I would highly recommend that you watch this piece because it's a really masterful execution of immersive storytelling. in the way that it just won the best XR experience at South by Southwest. Definitely worth checking out, so go watch it. I think there's a series of different podcasts that I'll have, both in the show notes here that you can listen to this discussion to talk about more of the larger geopolitical issues around nuclear nonproliferation, but also just how this as a technology is going to start to be used as a part of an impact campaign rather than have a keynote speech. What is it going to mean to be able to have a groups of people to see this experience and then have different group discussions? Because it's taking this really abstract issue and really grounding it into these personal stories So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the voices of VR podcast So this interview with Susanna and Alexander happened on Friday March 18th 2022 so with that let's go ahead and Dive right in

[00:02:19.642] Susanna Pollack: So I'm Susanna Pollack, president of Games for Change. We're a not-for-profit that has been around for nearly 20 years and have been in the center of the argument and the use for games as drivers for social impact. And a few years ago in 2017, we launched XR for Change as we saw a number of People within different stakeholder groups were starting to look at immersive media and technology as a way to explore whether it was game design and also social impact. And we felt that we would be in a really good position, as we have been in the game sector, to help build a community of practice around different verticals and skill sets and experts who are using VR, AR, MR, and all the immersive media to drive different types of social change. And so that's what we're about.

[00:03:09.773] Alexander Glaser: Okay. Thank you, Kent, again for having us. It's a great pleasure and honor to be here. My name is Alexander Glaser. I teach at Princeton University. I'm a physicist by training, but my appointment is in the School of Engineering and also in the School of Public and International Affairs. Here at Princeton, I'm part of a program called the Program on Science and Global Security, which is based at the School of Public and International Affairs. And we conduct, let's say, technical research to inform policy, research, analysis, and outreach. Most of our work has been focused around nuclear security issues, but we also work in different areas. The program has been around for now more than 40 years. And I think it's correct to say that for most of this time, we've focused on nuclear security issues, but we also focus on, let's say, biosecurity, artificial intelligence, space-based systems, and so on. Turns out nuclear seems to always come back. When you think you want to move on to something else, something happens in the nuclear space. And so we stick around. So that's the program on science and global security. We also have a laboratory for science and global security where we conduct experiments. And this is where most of the technical students are. I should mention that we have about 20 to 25 people, including faculty, researchers, and students who are part of the team. There's finally also a journal called Science and Global Security, which has been around since 1989. And it's sort of the only peer-reviewed journal in this space. And I think that's what I do. Usually I don't do immersive storytelling. So we come from a nuclear security angle. But again, this changed when we first approached Games4Change in, I guess, late 2016 and asked if they wanted to collaborate on a project.

[00:05:07.473] Kent Bye: All right. Yeah. Well, maybe you can get a quick hit on each of your introductions and journey into experiencing and seeing virtual reality technologies and what background orientation that you're bringing to that. So give a bit more context as to your own background and your journey into working with VR technologies.

[00:05:26.284] Susanna Pollack: Yeah, I can happily start. So I came into both the game sector and the immersive sector looking at this lens of impact. And I will actually say like coalition building. I don't have a technical background. I actually worked in traditional media for many, many years working for the BBC. And when I decided it was around 2015 that I wanted to shift my career to work more in both in interactive media rather than linear media. but also apply that to actually have more real impact on the world. I stumbled across the world of games and games for change. And immediately I was drawn to games as being like a platform, like a 21st century platform for storytelling. Like it is immersive in its own way and ubiquitous. And I had, with my work at games for change, you know, applied my approach to, bringing communities together and elevating a sector and initiating new projects into that space. And when immersive media came into the mix a couple of years later, you know, to me, it was like it was a calling because it offered just so much more an opportunity to immerse people into narrative. And I feel even have a more direct impact on experiences and the way people think about issues and educating them. And there's so many other applications for XR in the health and education field too. So what I have taken into this space, again, is this idea of bringing communities together, but also with a specific focus on impact. That there are amazing storytellers and creative technologists out there that can make incredibly beautiful, visually appealing projects. But what I'm interested in is how to create this project where there's an intentional outcome and a design to it to help move the needle or have an impact on the person experiencing it in some way. So that's kind of what I brought into this project that Alex and I collaborated on, but also just into the field in general.

[00:07:26.463] Alexander Glaser: Yeah, I will perhaps add sort of how did I start working with VR? I would say it really goes back to one of our partners, Tamara Patton, who joined our PhD program. It must have been 2015, around that time frame. And she had already an interest in using virtual reality for another project that was also part of this project. with Susanna and Games4Change, where we wanted to use virtual reality as a tool to enable collaborations between experts, remote experts. And so we started to think about that project together. It must've been around 2016 or so. Late 2016, we were starting to work on a project proposal to actually bring this idea to life. And I think it was around that time, the election, November 2016, the presidential election in the US. And I think it was very imminent for many of us working in the nuclear security space that things would probably change once the new president comes in, in 2017. And I think it was really at that point that we decided, well, maybe we should reframe this project proposal and not only use VR for what we call the government component, but also have a public-facing component to that project. And this must have been really close to the proposal deadline, I remember. We called Games4Change, Susanna Pollack, We had heard of them and her and we talked and I'm so glad she said, okay, let's try this. And this is really how this very simple idea of should we work with storytelling in VR really became something tangible. for us. And again, we can talk a little bit more about what we have in mind in preparation for this conversation today. I look back at the original proposal and it's sort of very, very different. We called it the VR application or a prototype of a VR application. So we had no idea at that point what exactly we wanted to do.

[00:09:36.660] Kent Bye: And yeah, Susanna, I'm very curious to hear your perspective on that. Cause as it was relayed to me from Michaela, that Alex had reached out to you as the start of this project. And I've gone to Games4Change, I think in like 2019, where I spoke and saw some projects, did some interviews there at the conference. And I always saw Games4Change as a platform to show other people's work, but this seems to be maybe a pivot of Games4Change and producing and making experiences of your own.

[00:10:04.034] Susanna Pollack: So yes, Games for Change has been a platform to help elevate the community's work as it relates to games and immersive media, where we want to build awareness around great projects and people can learn from each other, best practices. And I think we've been very successful at doing that. But we also have been helping organizations, mostly in the not-for-profit space, come up with strategies on how to use games and immersive media in their work. We've actually been doing that for as long as I've been here. We don't do it very often. It's really a bandwidth issue. But when we do feel like we can both have value to a team and also engage with a project that we think is exemplary, that could actually elevate standards and inspire others to think about how they can use immersive games in a big way, right? In a way that can scale. We want to attach ourselves to that and really help something happen. So the first time we actually did it as an executive producer was on a game, a series of games that we made with Nicholas Kristof back in 2015. And it was built around his book at the time called Half the Sky, which focused on women in oppressive societies and how they turn that oppression into opportunity. And this was just as I came on board. But at the time, we worked on what was basically a multimedia project. It was a documentary that was made for PBS. There was this bestselling book by a recognized author. It was Nicholas Kristof and Shell Rudan. And we executive produced what ended up being four games for this project. and then ran an impact campaign. After that, for the next 18 months, rolling out this package of media to different interest groups around the world. Since then, we have worked on some smaller projects. And right before I worked on this with Alex, actually in between, because our project we recognized was almost a six year long gestation period. We actually worked with the Nobel Peace Center on our project and Microsoft. Minecraft education. And we served again as an executive producer on that, helping with strategy, helping with partnership development, and then ultimately with kind of a rollout strategy. But On the Morning You Wake and our partnership with Princeton represents our first time doing this in the immersive media. So it was our first XR project that we helped develop from the beginning. And it came from that call from Alex. And we immediately were inspired and excited about what the potential was. I mean, how one can, and we didn't know what it was going to be at first. We just knew that it was a process that we could help with using a methodology that we've developed over the years on how to develop impact media. something we developed from the game space. And now we've applied to VR and AR and I'm thinking through like a user centric design process. How do you make an experience for a particular audience that has certain impact goals that can be on different kinds of platforms and how is it measurable? And, you know, all that kind of like thinking that people involved in an impact campaigns would be thinking about. And how do you think about creating the right piece of media that will get you where you want to go? And so that's what we started doing. And we have not done anything at this scale before. So that is very true.

[00:13:28.475] Kent Bye: Okay. Yeah. And Alex, I know you were involved in writing a book called unmaking the bomb in 2014. So we're talking about here, fast forward to when you make this call to Susanna around after Trump comes into office. And so what was it that was the catalyst for you? I mean, there was a grant that you were applying for, but what was the pitch that you were making to the grant and then how it evolved into what we now know as on the morning, you wake to the end of the world.

[00:13:54.757] Alexander Glaser: Yeah. I mean, again, as I think I mentioned, at first we had sort of just one component, the idea of using VR as a tool or framework to enable new collaborations between government experts and diplomats. That was our starting point. Then, you know, after the election, again, there was sort of this moment in the community that we really have to sort of go back to the drawing board. I think for the longest period of time, throughout the nineties, certainly we had some of the luxury. Progress was always happening in a way incrementally. And we can maybe come back to this. I think we sort of lost the window of opportunity to make much more progress. In any event, we'd see this new administration coming in and I was just sort of going back and look at some of the tweets. I mean, we tend to move on quickly. And I guess some of these tweets are hard to find now, but it was pretty obvious that the relationship with North Korea and Iran could very quickly become a very different one. I remember walking into the classroom in the beginning of 2017, sort of a few days after the inauguration, and you could sense in the classroom 100 students or 70 students that Probably by the end of the semester, we will be living in a very different world. Again, now we're here in 2022 and having some deja vu here. But again, Trump later in August 2017, you may remember, said at a press conference, North Korea will be met with fire and fury. like the world has never seen. I mean, that was part of the rhetoric there. And it was around that time, I think we had already made contact. I think the grant had just been approved and Susanna Pollack and her team and Tamara Patton and I, you know, we started to think about potential partners and perhaps stories that we would want to tell. So we met with various teams and eventually we found out just Margo. Of course we had seen notes on blindness and we all felt that this is a very effective and powerful use of this medium. And we, I think we all agreed we wanted something that felt similar in some ways. And I think, you know, we all flew to London at some point in, I believe, July, 2018, and met the team over there. And I think everyone was quite enthusiastic and, you know, we were sitting in this room, a small group, and this Hawaii Missile Alert sort of came up really a part of that conversation. And I think pretty quickly, and probably within minutes, or so. In hindsight, it seemed sort of the, oh my God, everyone was, oh wow, this is exactly the story we want to tell. But we all felt we didn't want an experience or a story that is traumatizing in a way, being inside a mushroom cloud or so. We felt that's not what we were looking for. And we felt this event from January 2018 offered really in an elegant way, because we assume whoever experiences the story knew the outcome. And then at the end, nothing happened, right? But everything changed. And I very much sort of like this as a starting point. Of course, the creative team sort of took it from there and really produced something that I could not have imagined at the time. I mean, it's a much bigger scale than we had. I certainly had in mind at the very beginning.

[00:17:24.010] Kent Bye: Yeah, Susanna, I'd love to hear your take on the evolution of deciding on that moment of what is referred to as the false alarm ballistic missile event in Hawaii, and how that was really the backbone to trying to take this really large story of nuclear proliferation and disarmament questions and something that could be very abstracted into these geopolitical issues, but really grounded it into these personal stories of 1.4 million people in Hawaii that live through this. And so this piece, On the Morning You Wake to the End of the World, really takes us into that context and grounds it in a way that makes it real, otherwise can feel very abstracted as this potential thing that is at such a high level of geopolitics, that's sometimes hard to wrap your mind around or even project yourself into some sort of connection to your own embodied experience of how you would be in relationship to this. So maybe you could fill in the gaps for the evolution of this story into focusing on this event.

[00:18:21.567] Susanna Pollack: I think even before we knew that we would be focusing on this story, what we saw in Notes on Blindness from Archers Mark and Atlas Five was the visualization of something that could be very abstract, right? And the fact that they were able to tell this story through an approach and a perspective that was really authentic and yet visually hauntingly beautiful, you know, and that was kind of the emotion that we felt or the approach that we felt even just, I mean, it was both from a storytelling standpoint and the visual aesthetic was that we knew that we wanted to approach this content from something that would draw people in and not push them away because of a overarching fear of doom and gloom, right, of the mushroom cloud. Because from a contemporary standpoint, I think when people think about nuclear weapons, it has either been not an issue that's top of mind because it's considered Cold War issue or something that was their parents issue. And there's a lot more immediate concerns or so overwhelming that you just can't think about it. Right. And we didn't want that to happen when we brought this story. We didn't want the paralyzed feeling or I just, Oh my God, I can't think about this anymore. I want to go have a drink. Right. This is just so depressing. So we knew that going in, but we didn't know what the story was going to be. And I think we found that Tamara's account of what happened on a very personal level, because if you recall, Tamara's family is from Hawaii. While she wasn't on the island at the time, she was just an arm lengths away in that she was receiving texts from the moment the alert came through. So we could immediately, having a conversation with her, see how immediate and how personal the story was, not only to her, but you could connect with it right away. And that was just really striking because it made it a human story. It wasn't an abstract story about the size of weapons or the politics between countries. And you heard about the story and couldn't help feel for her and her family. And what if you were there as a person? And that's what we just connected with right away. And we said, yeah, that's the way into this. that this isn't an abstract issue. It's a personal issue that in many ways, it's a human justice issue. It's an injustice to us as people, as humans on this planet, that this situation, this crisis could affect anybody on this planet in any town. in the US and internationally. And we entrusted our partners and particularly the writers of this piece at Archer's Mark to find those personal accounts in Hawaii and weave in a story that, again, was like inviting you in to have a relationship with these characters, but also zoom out. And they were able to make that story relevant in a global scale. and informative. So I think they and everyone involved really found the right balance in this piece.

[00:21:24.695] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I saw this in January before the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, and all the additional rhetoric that's been coming from Putin in terms of getting the nuclear weapons ready for use. And there's kind of like the threat of nuclear annihilation that's in the background context of this regional war within Russia and Ukraine with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. That changes the overall dynamic of what's happening and what the response of it is. So Alex, I'd love to hear some of your reactions to the current global situation in terms of, you know, when you have a piece like this on the morning, you wake to the end of the world. Again, this was an experience that 1.4 million Hawaiians had, but now some people are maybe getting a little bit of a taste of that. while they're not getting a text message saying that there's an inbound missile threat, which is you basically have anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes before you may be facing nuclear annihilation. So that's what the people of Hawaii were facing. But there seems to be one step closer to that being a lot more of a real reality for everybody in the world, as we're dealing with this, what could end up escalating into a World War Three or some sort of nuclear exchange. And so I'd love to hear your thoughts on the current moment in time and what's happening in the world?

[00:22:42.200] Alexander Glaser: Yeah, well, of course, I wish the piece wasn't as timely as it is, I guess. It's too early, of course, to anticipate exactly how, you know, the audience will respond to it. We just had our first screenings at South by just a couple of days ago. But of course, now here we are. In the meantime, I will also just make an obvious point, perhaps, since the project was underway much longer than we had originally imagined. 2018, we decided what the story should be. Initially, of course, we started everything when Donald Trump became president. Then there was a new president, and then there was a pandemic. And at least me, I had concerns about, I mean, is it really the right time to tell a story about yet another existential threat when we're just going through this global crisis? But again, here we are, 2022, we have a war in Europe, and I do think this is a fundamentally important moment in time. I think it's too early to really say what lessons we will learn or have learned. I mean, we will find out I think sometime this or next year, but I think we have at least, you know, in the best case, we learned at least one thing. Of course, we hope this is not going to escalate, but I think the idea, someone said this recently on another call, Laura Considine, The idea of nuclear weapons as restraining or stabilizing has been undermined profoundly, no matter how you think about this crisis. I think now we have proof that this is not the case. We have a country invading another country, essentially counting on the fact that nuclear weapons will sort of prevent an international response. So in that sense, nuclear weapons have sort of encouraged or facilitated a conventional war. I think this is going to be one lesson. We may also learn that nuclear weapons don't protect you from aggression. Again, it's a bit too early to draw any conclusions here. And of course, we learned that a conventional war may escalate potentially to nuclear war in Europe or elsewhere. I think, again, I hope we're not going to learn these lessons the hard way. But I think at the very least, what I started off with, the fact that nuclear weapons prevent conventional war, I think this is something that we learned is not true. And we hope this will be part of the debate going forward over the next couple of years. What role should nuclear weapons play in this world?

[00:25:30.229] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I'd love to hear your thoughts, Alex, on the piece of On the Morning You Wake to the End of the World that's going to be releasing on March 24th. What your reaction to this as an immersive story and how you see it could help to maybe shift the overall conversation about this as a topic within the public sphere or even within the policy spheres?

[00:25:54.738] Alexander Glaser: Yeah. Where to start? Again, perhaps first quickly on the public part. And I think Michaela alluded to some of this in your previous podcast. I don't think we expect On the Morning You Wake to be the beginning of a new movement, so to speak. We hope we can start a conversation. And at some point Susanna said that we have this big tent approach. We hope that On the Morning You Wake can be an asset or a vehicle that others can use to facilitate conversations. And ICANN is a partner, the Nobel Peace Prize 2017, Global Zero is a partner, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. So we hope that we can help push the conversation along various directions. On the policy side, I will have to admit, I think it's going to be a difficult conversation. I think Different people will have different takeaways. Again, it depends on how this all plays out to be planned. But again, I hope it can provide some additional momentum to the TPNW, the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons. To be really specific perhaps, I mean, in arms control and nuclear disarmament policy and engagement, there are sort of two schools of thought, right? There's the incremental approach, which is sort of mostly what we've done over the last 50 plus years, where you have treaties like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that would establish these are the weapon states, these are the non-weapon states, you may have a test ban treaty, you may have bilateral treaties that cap the number of weapons and weapon states. I think there's a feeling in the community, and that's growing, and I think hopefully on the morning you wake can contribute to that conversation that this approach, especially post-Ukraine probably, it's going to be very, very difficult and maybe really not viable over time. And so this is where the opposite approach comes in, which is TPNW, perhaps more radical in many ways, to change the paradigm and really talk about nuclear weapons, about what they are. They are weapons of mass destruction and they are unjustifiable and reprehensible weapons and we should ban them. And I think you know, in the best case, I hope on the morning you wake and perhaps also this tragedy in Ukraine will in the long term provide momentum to this effort. I mean, that's what I hope. But as I said, I think it's too early to tell how the next month and years will look like.

[00:28:33.096] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's a moment and on the morning you wake to the end of the world where the question is asked, why do we live in a world where this is even possible and parents having to explain to their children why they have to be going and hiding in the sewers or just find shelter, you know, there's a potential inbound nuclear weapon into Hawaii, according to this text message that was a false alert. But it raised these questions that, you know, this is actually a possibility that this could happen, even though it didn't happen, it's still a possibility. So why do we live in a world where this is possible? So it feels like this is a broader question that I think a lot of people are maybe starting to ask, given this regional war that could escalate into a global world war with a nuclear exchange. It's sort of top of mind for people around the world. So Suzanne, I'd love to hear from your perspective, in terms of the coalition building and the impact campaign, maybe there's a lot more interest in this as a piece. And so I'm curious, from your perspective, who you've been talking to, and who's shown initial interest to try to get this out to their communities.

[00:29:34.042] Susanna Pollack: Yeah. You know, again, the timing of what's happening in Ukraine with Russia, it's, you know, an incredibly unfortunate and tragic situation that has brought attention to our peace in a different way. So from the beginning, however, we have been developing a pretty large social impact campaign. that we knew would start rolling out once the piece was finished, following like a festival release, which is happening now. And as Alex talked about, we've been taking a big tent approach. We don't see ourselves as an organization that's going to start a movement, right? We are not experts in the field of nuclear weapons. nonproliferation. There are a lot of brilliant people out there that are making great strides in bringing awareness to this issue and changing policy. In fact, one of our partners on this, ICAN, that Alex mentioned, is a Nobel Peace Laureate. The organization was received at, I think it was in 2019, I think it was. 17, and we have established relationships with them and in particular with Ray Atchison, who was one of the recipient of the Laureate as a fellow for this project. So we have, I guess, as an important central part of the work that we will be establishing across different channels brought in the expertise to advise us as impact producers. So Ray Atchison is one. We're also working with Cynthia Lazaroff, who was featured in the piece. Not only is she an expert in the field of nuclear risk, also on US-Russians relations, but happened to have been in Hawaii at the time of this incident. So she has this remarkable relationship to the piece because she lived through the experience and is featured in the piece. In fact, it was Cynthia who said, in the end, nothing happened, but everything changed. And then the third fellow they're working with is a woman named Lovely Umayam, who is also an expert in the field and also a visual artist. And so these three individuals are working with us to help advise on partnerships, to advise on curriculum that we're developing. So this piece can be used in different contexts at university campuses, on high school classrooms, in museum environments. And so this is part of the coalition that we're building, whether it's with our team, ICANN, Global Zero, Alex mentioned, N-Square is another organization. And we will be working with each of these partners to allow the peace to be seen as part of other policy convening events. So this offers another way to have a conversation around this issue that is different than a panel discussion or a keynote address. We can bring people through this experience and then have conversations or bring them through activities. So we have plans to present at the Nobel Peace Center in June. where we will have a number of activations there, which includes a convening. We bring in ICANN Norway, which is a local chapter of the ICANN organization, with dignitaries from the area, with advocates, as well as having an activation with, I think, up to 30 high school classrooms are going to be coming through the museum. And we're developing activities for them to help them, one, learn about the issue of nuclear weapons, two, get ready for this experience. As you've seen it, it's an emotional experience, right? And while we do think it is appropriate to bring to high school students, we want to be careful and respective about getting them ready to have the experience. And then when they come out of the experience, having facilitators and educators ready to talk to them about it. and to provide prompts for other exercises or things they can do around this material. So we're being very careful about how we design this. As I said, we have different age levels and contexts. We want people to go through the experience. And we also have different territories we want this to go into. So we are adapting the piece both within the VR experience itself in subtitles in some markets, but we are looking to do voiceovers in France and German. eventually Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, and package up all of the material that we've been creating and translate the education material so it can be shown around the world at different community screenings. in museums and on campuses around the world. So we're starting to roll this out. We'll be in Oslo in June. We have an activation in New York City in May, which is still coming together, but it should be a public-facing experience. We'll be at the Games for Change Festival in July. And we have plans to bring this to Japan. I think we'll be in the UK in June. And have this continue for a year or two or longer, Our goal is to get as many people to see it and to really think about this differently.

[00:34:28.592] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's a really powerful piece. And I happen to be on the jury at South by Southwest and part of the dilation on which piece should win at the South by Southwest. And it was very fast when we were talking about the best VR experience of unanimous consensus and just a quick decision in terms of this piece was a standout in terms of the way that you're using the spatial medium to tell the story. And also happened to be very timely. That was certainly given it a different weight, but the piece on its own, I think the technical achievements that are in this piece and the content and centering an indigenous woman of Jamaica, Osario, also just really powerful to tie in this other aspects of colonialism, imperialism, and military occupations of Hawaii that are also a part of this dynamic that is specific to this story. But I think also the economics and larger geopolitical dimensions of this as a topic are also weaving in lots of different aspects. And I think this story does a great job of tying all those together in a grounded human story. And Alexander, I'd love to hear your phenomenological reactions to seeing this piece after working on it for so many years, once you were able to see the final cut and to just experience this as a topic that you've been thinking about for a long time as a part of your professional career. But what was it like to see it through the lens of this immersive story in the VR medium?

[00:35:50.318] Alexander Glaser: I have to admit I only saw the full piece only probably two days before you saw it when it all came together. So it was for me also a brand new in some ways. Of course I had heard the audio version of it. I will just mention, and I'm happy that you mentioned the Jamaica Osorio, of course, again, this was not part of the original plan in a way. We had the idea of collecting testimony, perhaps even fictional stories, at least that was my idea, but that's not how Arches Mark fortunately approached this. But at some point they came across or they were connected to Jamaica Osorio. And when I first heard the opening poem and this was of course, gave it a whole different dimension, you know, the spoken word poet being part of this, something that I did not anticipate. And for me, at least took it to a whole different level, really. So, and for me, this is maybe the most memorable sort of takeaway from the whole experience that suddenly there's this whole different level that was at least on my end, not part of the story initially.

[00:36:57.352] Kent Bye: And in terms of the work that you do in nuclear nonproliferation, I'm just curious what your reaction to not only you spoke a little bit about the emotional impact, but like what you see as what this may open up for recontextualizing some of your work in this way that maybe connects it through this story or what you see is maybe opening up using the medium of VR to be able to explore this as a topic.

[00:37:21.681] Alexander Glaser: These are very good questions. I think as a general observation, I would mention that throughout the process, I think we try to find the right balance between the personal stories and perhaps even the poetry by Jamaica and the facts that we sort of include in the story. And you would think there's a certain tendency from our end, you know, the technical experts to pack as much as possible into the story. We knew that that's not what we should be doing. So we try to find a balance where yes, there are some numbers in there about who has nuclear weapons and how many and how destructive are they. And I hope that we found a reasonably good balance overall. For me personally, I mean, Susanna already explained the impact campaign in great detail. I'm very excited about this to happen. And I'm really curious to see how the public will respond to what we do. And we may have to sort of adjust along the way if we realize that some things work better than others. I'm very excited about that part. For me personally, I teach a big undergraduate course also called science and global security, just like our program. And clearly the students will use it as a teaching tool and the students will watch this in the afternoons as part of their precepts. And then we discuss this in class. So I do see this really as a new opportunity to use new media in the classroom.

[00:38:51.181] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's a couple of follow-up questions I wanted to ask you, Alexander, just because, you know, this is your subject of expertise. And after I go through a piece like this, I have a lot of questions of like, okay, how is this a part of our world and how do we get out of this? And I think, you know, you wrote a whole book on making the bomb that talks about some of the strategies. And we mentioned some of that earlier, and I wanted to point out, there was a video that you'd pass along that was featured by the New York times that I also had come across. Some of it is featured within this piece in terms of. war gaming strategic planning of like, if there was a nuclear war, how would it play out? Because you have to either use it or lose it type of situation where either you have to use your nuclear weapons or you risk your enemy using nuclear weapons to destroy your nuclear weapons, which thereby renders your nuclear weapons stockade useless. So then you have this situation where if there's anything that catalyzes a nuclear war, then you have all of these strikes, dozens and dozens of strikes that are killing anywhere from 30 to 90 million people or 90 million casualties that were some of the numbers that were featured within On the Morning You Wake to the End of the World, where essentially that if this does happen, it seems like it would happen very quickly and there would be just a bunch of nuclear weapons And you did a video that when I watch it, it's so eerie to be like, Oh my God, this is how it would play out. And this is a possibility that this could actually happen at any moment. So we'd love to hear maybe some additional context on those different scenarios that are part of your work of trying to figure out where these stock piles are. And then if there was some sort of conflict, what would it look like?

[00:40:25.475] Alexander Glaser: Yes, the video, I want to keep this short here. The video, we produced this as part of an exhibition actually around the time we started the project with Games4Change. It was for a local small exhibition here at Princeton University where we had mostly infographics, but we felt maybe we can do a visual story. And that became this video, four or five minute video. It was never meant to be on YouTube really. It was sitting unlisted on YouTube for two years before I hit a button and published it. And within a few days, it racked up 2 million views, I guess. And it's been sitting there ever since, you know, now it's getting more attention again. I think it's now at 3 million. views. And again, obviously this is inspired by War Games, you know, 1983, the ending. It wasn't meant to be particularly serious, I want to say, even though we did put in quite a bit of work. I am getting, as you might imagine, lots of comments on YouTube, which you can ignore, or you can sort of look at them, of course. And people wonder, you know, why was a certain site attacked and why not another? I think in our scenario, it starts in Poland and now people worry about Ukraine. But again, it was never meant to be, you know, it was a fictional scenario, but it was based on conversations with Bruce Blair, who was part of our program. He passed away in 2020. So we spent an afternoon in our conference room. This is again with Moritz Kutt and Tamara Patton And we talked it through, how would the war start? And he knew how the war plans roughly looked like. So he could tell us, well, in that case, Russia would probably respond with 300 nuclear weapons. And then the next stage would involve X. And so we packed it into this video. And here it is. One thing that I learned along the way, looking at the analytics, YouTube analytics, was Most of the viewers, the vast majority of the viewers are male, you know, I think almost 90%. And quite a few, actually, most of the US are from Russia and always were from Russia. But in terms of gender, apparently this is not a good medium to reach a diverse audience. And I think clearly we need to work with a different story and perhaps a different medium if you want to really reach a representative audience that we definitely want to reach with on the morning you're awake.

[00:42:51.932] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. I think it's a good supplement to the immersive experience to kind of give additional context to some of the things that are discussed because it grounds it into speculative design and war gaming type of context. Because seeing this in Portland, Oregon, it's like, okay, is this going to be a natural threat? But when seeing a simulation like that, it's something that one or two degrees of separation of people, it would impact everybody on the planet if that were to come to pass. So Anyway, I guess as we start to wrap up here and ramp up for the launch of On the Morning Wake to the End of the World on March 24th, just curious to hear some reflections of what you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling might be and what it might be able to enable.

[00:43:32.750] Susanna Pollack: Um, so I think that as immersive storytelling goes beyond VR into other ways of connecting with this content. I mean, I think the Oculus Quest 2 is a phenomenal piece of hardware. I'm so glad that it has seemed to have broken through these in the last couple of years, but still there's some ways to go. And part of our impact campaign is about bringing the headsets and experience out of the home for those who don't have it. but also we're thinking about how to create experiences that are around this project that are out of the headset so that people who don't have a headset at home can watch some 360 video on their laptop or can listen to a podcast or some other kind of content that is immersive by nature and touches on the subject. And I do think that that's the future. And I'm very excited about immersive storytelling, that it's not limited to a closed experience, even if it's six stop, that is something that can live and breathe outside of the headset through MR or through AR or some new technology that hasn't been established yet. But it's the relationship with the content and the visual techniques that allow you to come in and out and live within the story itself that can be incredibly powerful that I have not seen in any other medium. So that's what I would say. Alex, what about you?

[00:44:55.967] Alexander Glaser: Well said. I don't really have much to add. I can perhaps say, but it's not really storytelling, but I am teaching a course this semester on virtual and augmented reality. Since we had all this extra hardware and perhaps a little bit of experience, I thought, okay, why not offer a new course. And as you might imagine, and again, I was very happy to see that. I mean, the student interest was immense and we had to buy application only because we only have so many headsets. And the fact that we clearly reach younger audience and can excite them to work on projects in this space is something that I found really, really encouraging. And the students are now starting to work and put together their projects, about 10 of them altogether, 10 projects, 20 students. And the topics they picked and work on are just so different and exciting. I'm just really looking forward to see what's going to happen. And it's mostly unexpected really for me at this point. So that's what I find exciting about working with this new medium.

[00:45:58.988] Kent Bye: Is the context that they're making these projects around policy or is there an umbrella context or is it just about anything that they want to do?

[00:46:05.833] Alexander Glaser: We call it VR and AR for engineers, scientists, and architects. And I teach this together with a colleague in architecture, Forrest Meggers. And so about half the students are engineers or computer scientists, and the other half are architects. But the projects they picked are really sort of... Very, uh, unexpected and diverse and going from extraterrestrial route planning on Mars or the moon to exploring our historic neighborhood here in Princeton with augmented reality applications. So TBD, if they can actually sort of put everything together at the end of the day, but I think we're off to a good start.

[00:46:47.229] Kent Bye: Very cool. Yeah, I know. Susanna had mentioned that you're doing that. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:46:54.457] Susanna Pollack: I think this has been a wonderful conversation and thank you so much for having us and supporting, yeah, the release March 24th. We're excited.

[00:47:03.843] Alexander Glaser: Thank you.

[00:47:05.392] Kent Bye: Awesome. Yeah. The morning wake to the end of the world comes out on Thursday, March 24th, 2022. And yeah, to me, this is one of the pieces that'll be, if anybody who's skeptical about the power of the medium for VR, this is like a must watch to see how the medium can take these big, large topics and really ground them in these personal stories and give them a sense of. embodied an emotional presence that I think is different than I've seen in other media. And just taking us to those places and into those situations helps to ground these large abstract concepts into these embodied experiences that I think are able to not only translate what happened to the people of Hawaii, but also make it real because we're also in a world where this is also a possibility for everybody. So I really look forward to see how this continues to develop and be put out into the world through these different impact campaigns and couldn't have really come at a better time. And I know you've been working on it for a long time and happy that it's evolved to the point where it's ready to be put out in the world. So again, thanks Alexander and Susanna for joining me today on the podcast to be able to unpack it all.

[00:48:05.754] Susanna Pollack: Thank you for having us.

[00:48:07.636] Alexander Glaser: Thanks. Thanks a lot.

[00:48:09.718] Kent Bye: That was Susanna Pollack. She's the president of Games4Change. She's using games for social impact and launched the XR for Change in 2017, as well as Alexander Glasser. He's at the Program for Science and Global Security as a part of the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and also the co-author of the book Unmaking the Bomb. I have a number of different takeaways about this interview. First of all, I just wanted to get a little bit more of this backstory of Princeton University reaching out to Games4Change. It's starting to get into more of these XR productions. Also, just to be able to ask a lot of these deeper questions around, OK, this is a nuclear nonproliferation. As an idea, there's these treaties that are out there. What's the next steps here? Because clearly, we're in a situation where something's not quite working right. And Alexander was referencing that. I guess there's usually a saying that goes something along the lines of nuclear weapons are supposed to deter conventional war. But in this case, it's almost enabling it in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It's also got these larger issues. Maybe we need something a little bit more radical than existing TPMW, which is the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. It's a U.N. treaty, and maybe there needs to be something that's a little bit more aggressive in terms of having universal buy-in. Are we going to have to go to the point where we cross that nuclear threshold to take further action on some of this? There's a lot of discussions, I think, that are happening, both from the world events that are happening right now, but also a piece like this. They're saying that they don't want to start a movement, meaning that there's a lot of other movements that are already happening. I feel like this is going to be an example of using VR as a part of both coalition building, but also trying to raise awareness to these big geopolitical issues that are affecting all of us. and maybe start to move the needle in some way. So I'm looking forward to see how their different impact campaigns continue to unfold. But also, this is a piece that you have the access to be able to just download for free on the Oculus if you have Oculus Quest 2, just to be able to have it optimized for you to run on the Quest is an amazing feat, how much of the 45 minutes of volumetric storytelling. Definitely go check it out and spread the word. I've got three different interviews that I did from the first episode, and then with Dr. Jamaica Osorio in the last episode, and then in this episode really digging into a lot of these other backstories and the deeper geopolitical context of this as an issue. Anyway, so definitely follow up and if you want to help get this piece out into different communities then for sure reach out to Susanna Pollock or Michaela Tarnasky-Holland. So that's all that I have for today and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of Europe podcast and if you enjoy the podcast then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a VISTA-supported podcast and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue bringing this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash which is a VR. Thanks listening

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