The meat and poultry industries have come under attack for the way they treat livestock, but it's difficult to get ordinary consumers interested in this topic. Dry statistics and still images can only go so far in eliciting sympathy among humans for animals, but things may be different when the most up-to-date technology is employed toward this end. The burgeoning field of virtual reality, which has already demonstrated its promise in a wide array of applications, enables people to put themselves in the shoes (hooves?) of farm animals and experience, albeit in a fictional way, what it might feel like to be facing the slaughterhouse.
PETA has released a simulation called I, Chicken that places users in a field of grass using virtual reality headsets and has them assume the role of a chicken. They can flap their wings, walk around and interact with other members of the flock. This idyllic existence is interrupted before too long by the arrival of farmers, who capture the player character and some of his friends. The chickens are placed in cages and then taken to a slaughterhouse. The final scene is set on a conveyor belt, with the player moving towards an unknown, yet presumably obvious, fate while packages of processed meat move by on another belt.
Researchers at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which has been exploring the use of VR in many different areas of study, from a Nepal earthquake documentary by RYOT News to sports and music simulations by DirecTV, has developed a similar imaginary world. Instead of inhabiting a chicken, participants take control of a cow avatar. They assume a position mimicking that of cows, kneeling forward with their hands on the floor, and are directed by voices to go to the appropriate locations to feed and perform other tasks. Eventually, they're instructed to go to be slaughtered for meat.
The scientists at Stanford have already found in other simulations that putting people in environmentally harmful imaginary settings brings home the reality of ecological degradation. Participants modify their behavior for weeks afterward to avoid or reduce the damage they do to our natural surroundings. The hope is that similar results can be achieved by having people assume the roles of farm animals, leading to a feeling of empathy and a greater awareness of the often-cruel ways in which such animals are treated.
Some people, having participated in the cow emulator, have indeed indicated that they will change their dietary habits to cut back on meat while others have stated that they have no plans to modify their behavior. This is a success for advocates of a vegan lifestyle because it's difficult to change the habits of a lifetime, so even if only a small number of people have expressed a desire for self-reform, this is more than could have been reasonably expected.
These two endeavors are just the tip of the iceberg as far as VR sims to promote veganism. Besides just cows and chickens, there are plenty of other creatures, like pigs, turkeys and sheep, that could be highlighted. Instead of focusing on the time immediately prior to being slaughtered, more in-depth simulations could cause people to identify with animals for a considerable amount of time. Fans of certain computer games often report feeling a sense of loss when a favorite character or faction is eliminated. This feeling could be multiplied several times over by placing gamers in the virtual skins of animal characters.
VR is in the process of transforming many types of human activity. Students can now visit far-off or long-past societies, like ancient Rome. Healthcare workers have already developed therapies for motor neuron dysfunction, PTSD, autism and other conditions using virtual reality gear. Architects can use the capabilities of this new technology to preview changes to a building before actually implementing them and to assess any vulnerabilities that exist.
It's about time supporters of the vegan way of life have jumped aboard the VR train. Because it's a minority viewpoint, it's essential that veganism uses all the tools at its disposal to raise awareness and communicate its message. In the future, perhaps the majority of people will be vegan, and we can expect virtual reality to play an important role in this transformation.
Photo From Flickr.