CSULB students wait in line to become "virtual chickens" at peta2 exhibit hosted on campus February 2.
There were puzzled looks, countless questions from skeptics and some unabashed staring, but those Cal State University Long Beach Students curious enough to stand in line and enter the blue tent erected in the middle of campus experienced a virtual reality depiction of what it's like to live life as a chicken in America’s poultry industry.
“I, Chicken” is a traveling virtual reality (VR) demonstration put on by peta2, the youth division of animal rights activist group PETA, and was hosted by Cease Animal Torture (CAT), a student group on campus. It utilizes motion capture cameras and “cutting-edge” wireless VR goggles to create a full immersion experience where participants go from being a chicken frolicking freely in the countryside to being squeezed into a cage and seeing slaughtered and packaged chickens go by on a conveyor belt.
Ken Montville, senior college campaign strategist for peta2 said the company worked with developers and programmers to design the 2-3 minute immersive experience designed to build an empathy that would otherwise take years to develop. However, compared to typical PETA material, this VR demonstration trends more toward a PG rating.
“Without being graphic at all, it actually affectively tricks the senses and creates what's called a deep immersion," Montville said. “And what we've discovered is no less than 20 percent of students that go through it come out with an aversion. Feeling more conflicted about eating chicken.”
Once inside the structure that resembled an E-Z-UP, students strapped on a backpack and motion-detecting arm sensors that are like digital floaties which allows them to flap the wings of their virtual bodies. They get to walk around with chicken friends until they’re plucked from their homes and shipped away to factories, where they're jammed into cages with other chickens. Organizers joked that because the sensitivity of the cameras and sensors requiring the tent to be completely enclosed, the heat encountered inside mimicked a hot and steamy chicken farm in the South.
The VR graphics are friendlier and more conducive to wanting to eat anything afterward, not something common to a PETA demonstration, but it did strike a chord withe some students. The tent stirred up conversation among those in line about animal cruelty, how visualizations would impact their lives while organizers discussed with them the pros and cons of a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.
“I think it's everyone's personal choice whether they're going to be vegan, vegetarian or eat meat,” said Jessica Faren, a freshmen on campus. “But spreading awareness that animals are treated cruelly is a good thing.”
Metita Tuileata, a first-year communications major stopped by the exhibit on her way to lunch. She said it was a good experience to see things from a chicken’s point of view and that at least in the short-term, it will affect her food choices.
"It's really scary to be picked up and grabbed,” Tuileata said of the VR experience. “You're about to get slaughtered. You're about to be killed to feed human beings. I feel like I’m about to go eat a salad now.”
Caroline Sanchez, registered president of CAT, the student-run organization that aims to end animal suffering by educating the public and taking action against industries utilizing cruel practices, that said the decision to work with peta2 to bring the exhibit back for a second semester—it was previously held inside the USU building but had some technical difficulties due to lighting—was made to expose more students to the life of a chicken. College minds, according to Sanchez, are more accepting of the alternative lifestyles that both CAT and peta2 are advocating.
“I think college students are more open-minded than, say, the older crowd, or more [capable of understanding the message] than the younger crowd,” Sanchez said. “Especially with this virtual reality exhibit it allows people to view life as a chicken and be more empathetic and they're able to connect more and understand the issues.”
Organizers don’t believe the exhibit can have an overnight affect on people who choose to go inside and flap their wings until they’re transported to factories where they’ll become wings. But getting people to reexamine their diets isn’t a hidden agenda according to Lauren Boushey, a member of the touring staff.
“If we can encourage people to remove meat and dairy products from their diets, that's a win,’ Boushey said. “It's a kind choice, it's a kind life. And with all the options available in grocery stores now, it’s an easier choice now more than it was 10 years ago.”
Boushey, whose been a vegan for eight years, said that the exhibit’s departure from other pamphlets and videos traditionally associated with PETA–those depicting graphic scenes of animal torture and death–has made it an easier process to get people to want to take part in it.
“I think it's a lot more accessible for the average viewer,” Boushey said. “We’ve done previous tours where the video we showed was extremely graphic. It's important that people see the reality and horrors that exist behind closed doors but this is different. This is another way to get people who are maybe more squeamish to experience what a chicken goes through in an average day.”
The campaign, which cost several hundred thousand dollars in both development of the technology and public outreach, was fully funded by the co-creator of The Simpsons, Sam Simon. Simon, a vegan himself, was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer in 2013 and vowed to give away his fortune in an article published in The Hollywood Reporter the same year. His contributions to charity rank in the millions and PETA, one of his projects, named their Virginia headquarters the Sam Simon Center.
The event at CSULB was the kickoff of a campaign that will continue into May and is scheduled to hit upward of 100 campuses nationwide. According to a report released by the Hartman Group titled The Culture of Millennials 2011, nearly 12 percent of millennials (those aged 16-30 years old) consider themselves “faithful vegetarians” compared to a combined 5 percent of Generation X and Baby Boomers reporting to be “faithful vegetarians’. Montville said college is often times where people start making decisions for themselves because they’re living on their own and have autonomy for the first time.
“It really is a unique opportunity for students to interact with emerging technology and try something they never imagined, in this case, spending a few minutes living as a chicken,” Montville said. “Once they see what it’s like and experience what it’s like they really start to consider what it is they’re contributing to and how they can make changes in their lives.”