A UC Berkeley student tests PETA’s “I, Chicken” virtual reality experience. (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)
I hear the sound of the wind and the clucking of birds behind me. The sky above me is bright and blue, filled with fluffy clouds and framed by a beautiful mountain landscape. Sapphire-hued creeks surround me.
I look around and then I see myself, reflected in a discarded tire’s hubcap: a cartoonish white and brown feathered bird with a big chicken booty. My beak is small, my eyes like two black pinpoints.
A voice — the God of the chickens? I wonder— speaks:
“You are a chicken living free in a field next to a farm,” she coos. “Your best chicken friend in the world is with you. Lift your feet one at a time to get your balance, stretch your wings, and then follow your friend through the field to meet the other chickens in your flock.”
This week PETA announced the release of a new virtual-reality simulation, dubbed “I, Chicken.” It aims to help people experience what it’s like to be a chicken in a world comprised of chicken eaters.
In a press release, PETA boasted that its new system would “immerse participants in a world where they can flap their wings, communicate with other chickens, take dust baths, and engage in other natural chicken behavior.” If that sounds pleasant, the press release goes on to explain that anyone experiencing “I, Chicken” would soon learn that “life for any of the 26 million chickens slaughtered every day isn’t a walk in the park.”
Could a few minutes as a chicken change my mind about how delicious it is? I headed to UC Berkeley — where PETA was premiering the experience — to investigate.
Just a few yards away from the campus’s Sather Gate, I spotted a small black tent, from which a line of about seven students extended. UC Berkeley has long been known for its radical activism, nudist events, and gourmet vegan restaurants. As a Bay Area native, I’ve had many a friend who’s gone off to Cal for undergrad, joined a co-op, and come back a staunch vegetarian. PETA, in other words, really knows how to pick the launchpad for a project. Next week it’ll be touring campuses like Brown and Harvard. It plans to bring “I, Chicken” to more than 150 schools this school year.
At the booth I met Kenneth Montville, a slight, tie-clad spokesman for peta2, who was eager to tell me about the organization’s forays into modern communication. In the past, PETA has released mobile apps, including Bunny Free, which allows you to check if a company tests on animals, and Happy Cow, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant finder. It’s also released a number of interactive games, including one titled “J. Lo: Monster in Fur,” in which you’re tasked with rescuing animals from being “tortured and killed” for the pop star’s clothing line.
“PETA keeps its eye on emerging technologies so we can sort of bring people’s attention to the plight of animals,” Montville said.
Its innovation team worked for months to perfect the two-minute “I, Chicken” immersion, hiring various developers and programmers on contract, in addition to a German virtual-reality empathy expert. Once its environment and narrative were constructed, PETA asked Seattle-based startup VRcade to developed a unique headset for its vision.
“It really is at the cutting edge of virtual-reality technology because of the custom goggle sets,” Montville told me. “As you’ll see, it’s wireless, the housing is 3D printed, you have a 5-inch screen, and its resolution is 280 by 720 pixels, which gives you a really dense pixel ratio.”
But why chickens?
“We’re slaughtering about 26 million chickens a day in this country, about 9 billion a year, which means over a million an hour,” he said without flinching. “They’re hands down the most abused animal on the planet.”
It was time for me to become that most abused animal. Montville led me into a dark tent. One wall inside was covered by a photo of a flock of chickens stuffed into a factory cage. As I dressed myself in the equipment, their beady eyes seemed to follow mine.
Montville handed me a small battery backpack and asked me to put it on.
“Now I’m going to strap a sensor on each of your arms,” he said as he moved the floatie-like devices over my biceps. “Let me know if they’re too tight.”
He encouraged me to make my arms into wings and to move about the padded square floor below my feet. “Don’t go into the bushes or water,” he advised. “Follow your chicken friend.” Then I slipped the headset over my face and held my breath.
I heard the clucking of my brothers and sisters and turned my body to the left to see a chicken that looked just like me. My best chicken friend! Though I didn’t know his name, I decided to call him Zander. An arrow-shaped pointer above him instructed me to follow, and so I moved my feet one by one to keep up.
Just then, our lovely stroll was interrupted by the screech of a pickup truck. “Get those free chickens, too. We’ll take them all to the slaughterhouse,” I heard a gruff voice say from afar. “Don’t worry about grabbing them and breaking their wings, just grab ’em as fast as you can.” A sense of helplessness washed over me. I wanted nothing more than to stay where I was and explore, but I knew I was no match for the two men dressed in trucker hats and overalls (the unstylish kind) apprehending my chicken brethren. I ran to take cover with Zander.
Suddenly someone grabbed my actual physical arm, and I heard the words, “Gotcha, chicken! It’s off to slaughter for you.” I knew this was coming, as Montville had warned me, and yet I jumped in fright. It occurred to me that a chicken, unable to reason through the situation, would be petrified by this hunt. I felt a pang of sympathy. The screen went blank.
When I regained my vision, I saw that I was in the back of a small covered pickup truck, smushed in between a number of chickens from my flock and others I did not recognize. Farm chickens, I presumed, as we bounced along the road, the screech of their cries ringing in my ears. At first I felt a pang of anger. Why hadn’t Zander protected us? In the darkness, I longed for the bright blue sky above me. Then panic. Where was Zander? Where was I going?
I had a sinking feeling it would be nothing like the paradise I had known before. “OK, that’s the last of these chickens,” the wretched voice from the overalls said. “Now drive them straight to the slaughterhouse.”
The screen went blank again, and I found myself atop a conveyor belt moving upward. On my left was a ramp moving downward that carried de-feathered, cooked bodies of my own kind, wrapped in plastic. The walls around me were filthy and dark. I’d read about the horrid conditions of big factory animal processing plants before. I knew they were so bad that agricultural influencers in Iowa even lobbied to make documenting them illegal.
Disgusted by the carnage, I looked away, into a gaping dark opening ahead of me: my destiny.
For a second, I considered jumping and then remembered I was in a cage. Besides, it didn’t matter. Running from the furnace’s fiery jaws would only delay the inevitable. For I was a chicken, and chickens get cooked. I took a deep breath and stared forward. The screen went white.
I lifted the headset off my face to find myself back in the tent. Montville helped me remove my backpack and arm bands, and we scurried into the daylight.
Montville, sensing I was jarred, pinpointed what I was feeling. “When you’re headed up the conveyor belt, up to the slaughterhouse, that’s you in there, and you feel that dread that these chickens would be feeling,” he said. “Once you’re out, you still have that feeling and you can empathize with the animals who are facing this in reality.”
Jiarui Yang, a junior transfer student at UC Berkeley, tried the headset soon after me. She’d been researching organic food options, and she wanted to learn more about why people choose to be vegan.
Yang, testing PETA’s two-minute virtual reality experience. (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)
“When you’re in that place, and you see all the dead bodies passing you by, it makes you feel uncomfortable,” she told me. “It’s very terrible.”
Alexandra Greenspan, a fourth-year student at the university, also described the experience as jarring, but admitted she was first lured to try it as a way of experiencing an advanced form of virtual reality.
“I think bringing in technology like this will really make people pay attention,” she said. “Watching a video isn’t the same as being in the place of a chicken.”
Still, neither Greenspan nor Yang planned to cut meat out of her diet.
“But I will definitely feel a little bit more guilty when I’m eating chicken,” Yang said.
That night I met a friend from San Francisco for dinner. As I scanned the menu, an appetizing chicken breast entree, with roasted portabella and white truffle oil sauce, caught my eye. Then I remembered Zander, and all the great times we’d shared in the field. And the conveyor belt. That horrible conveyor belt.
The waitress came by to take our order.
“I’ll have the pork chop,” I said, handing her the menu.