“The Messy Truth VR Experience,” a new virtual reality (VR) short-doc created by Van Jones and starring “Black Pather” actor Winston Duke, was awarded with the Advanced Imaging Society’s Social Justice Lumiere Award Wednesday night. In an exclusive interview with Variety, Jones opened up about the power of VR to overcome divisiveness with empathy.
“Media is being more and more used to either divide or distract,” Jones said. The TV host, activist and social entrepreneur argued that media was used either as a toy or a weapon, and called divisive clickbait “a symptom of laziness.”
Now, Jones wants to use VR to reach beyond those divides. “The Messy Truth VR Experience,” a first in a series of planned VR pieces, does this by putting viewers into the shoes of a African-American child, who is in the car with its father while getting pulled over by police.
“Everybody has been a child in a car,” Jones said, which made the experience universally relatable. But not everyone has experienced racial profiling, and the realities of interacting with police while black. “It is not a gruesome scene, but it is very disturbing,” he said.
Winston Duke on set in Los Angeles.
To make “The Messy Truth” more immersive, Jones and director Elijah Allan-Blitz made use of a high-end VR headset in combination with a Leap Motion sensor. “It uses infrared cameras to track the movement of your hand,” said Allan-Blitz. “In the experience, you are looking down and you see your whole body.”
“It really does pull you in,” added Jones, who has seen people become very emotional after viewing the experience. “Sometimes, there is tears.” It probably also didn’t hurt that the duo was able to get Winston Duke, who played M’Baku in “Black Panther,” to play the father in the piece, something Jones called “a huge coup.”
“The Messy Truth VR Experience,” whose executive producer is Michael Dutton of 6cc Media, is currently being shown at the Technicolor Lab in Los Angeles. Jones and Allan-Blitz have plans to bring the experience to people across the country, possibly showing it in airports or shopping centers as well as at festivals. The exact distribution plan is still being worked out, as is a strategy for giving viewers a chance to take action after experiencing “The Messy Truth.”
Jones’ Magic Labs, 6cc and Allan-Blitz plan to produce additional VR pieces that give people a chance to experience new perspectives on issues like the plight of coal miners in Appalachia, the opioid epidemic and sexual harassment in the workplace. Ultimately, they also want to distribute those experiences as 360-degree videos for maximum exposure.
“I believe that there is a massive hunger for more empathy and understanding,” Jones said. VR could be the ideal empathy machine for this, and be part of an effort to use technology for good. Said Jones: “Right now, we have an overabundance of data and a scarcity of wisdom.”