Andrew Peng, 20, looked like any other Asian American student. Only deep in his
heart, he knew he was a chicken.
Especially with his special virtual reality goggles on.
At UC Berkeley, one of the most Asian American campuses in the nation, students
were lined up for a unique demonstration–to experience the first virtual reality
study to go cross-species.
Most scientific applications to date have involved humans, especially in empathy
studies. But this one set up by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals) attempts to see whether a sense of empathy can be developed between you
and the animals sent off to be slaughtered and eaten.
Would you, could you, order that General Tso’s Chicken if you clucked a mile in
the chicken’s shoes?
Would you exhibit noticeable dietary changes after two minutes wearing some
high-tech virtual reality goggles that are, incidentally, cooler than the Oculus
Rift virtual reality gamer goggles that Mark Zuckerberg just bought for $2
billion in June? The Oculus goggles are tethered, connected to a computer.
PETA’s are wireless to give you that free-range experience.
And though you’re in an animated world, similar to one created by PETA’s
benefactor on the project, The Simpsons‘ co-creator Sam Simon, this is no
“People actually experience what it’s like to be a small bird in trouble,” said
Kenneth Montville of PETA. “You develop empathy from that first-hand experience
and take it to the real world.”
I saw Peng put on the glasses and flap his wings.
“It was pretty weird,” Peng said after he took his glasses off. “It made me feel
the fear of the chickens as they’re going off to die.”
The experience ends when you, as a chicken, ride with others in a truck to a
Peng said he’d definitely think about things before he eats another chicken
Another student, Rachel Kang, 21, had been vegetarian, even a vegan. She started
eating meat again but said the PETA virtual reality experience made her more
aware of what’s at stake when she eats chicken. And much more empathetic.
“Oh my gosh, yes,” said Kang. “The part where you follow your best chicken
friend really got to me.”
When I put on the glasses, I didn’t know what to suspect. I kept falling into a
little pond and could never get close to the other chickens I saw. But then we
were put in the truck to be taken to slaughter. It does make you think of the
nine billion chickens killed in the U.S. every year. That’s right, nine billion
a year, about 26 million chickens a day.
Full disclosure, my wife works for PETA, but not on this project. We eat a lot
NOW WHAT ABOUT RACISM?
All the tofu I eat pretty much assures I don’t need virtual reality to address
the ethics of my diet.
But as I stood in line to try on the goggles, I wondered whether the same
virtual reality techniques could be applied to help people develop empathy
toward persons of a different race.
Andrew Peng, one of the students I talked to, told me he came to the U.S. from
Beijing 14 years ago and still gets racist reactions, even in Berkeley.
Especially when people hear his accent.
“People look at me as strange,” he said. “It does happen a lot.”
What if, by virtue of the goggles, a little empathy could be developed for
Andrew the Asian American?
Or to use a more recent example in the news, what if the goggles could give you
the experience of a black man in a place like Ferguson, Missouri, walking to the
police with your hands up?
Would that change your perspective on race and humanity?
Last week in San Francisco at a digital conference, Hillary Clinton talked about
Ferguson for the first time and rhetorically used a bit of virtual reality:
Imagine what we would feel and what we would do if white drivers were three
times as likely as black drivers to be searched by police during a traffic stop
as black drivers instead of the other way around. If white offenders received
prison sentences ten percent longer than black offenders for the same crimes. If
a third of all white men–just look at this room and take one-third–went to
prison during their lifetime. Imagine that. That is the reality in the lives of
so many of our fellow Americans in so many of the communities in which they
The key word is “imagine.”
Fighting for people of color will take more than fighting ignorance with more
For empathy’s sake, it may be more a matter of imagination–or the lack of it.
To solve that problem, virtual reality goggles could help.
But they shouldn’t be necessary in a truly compassionate society.