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Virtual Reality Brings Nuclear Catastrophe to Life

In the immersive documentary On the Morning You Wake, participants can feel how the Hawaii false missile alert is more relevant today than ever.

Words: Sarah Papazoglakis
Pictures: OTMYW

It has recently come to light that in 2022 the US began preparations and contingency planning for a plausible nuclear threat from Russia against Ukraine. That same year, the Virtual Reality (VR) documentary experience On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World) (OTMYW), which explores the human impact of the Jan. 13, 2018 false nuclear missile alert in Hawaii, was launched through a collaboration between Princeton University’s Center for Science and Global Policy and Games for Change, to “inspire people to take action to shape the future of nuclear weapons policy.”  Today, more than two years into its war with Ukraine, there is a threat of nuclear war. OTMYW offers an important perspective on the human impact of nuclear armament and delivers a call to action worth revisiting as the threat of nuclear disaster, once again, looms large.

The Human Impact of Nuclear Armament

OTMYW is the story of how roughly a dozen ordinary people responded to the ballistic missile threat emergency alert sent out across the State of Hawaii on the morning of Jan. 13, 2018. Precisely because the nuclear threat was not realized, the experience of Hawaiians on that day as they sought answers on how to find shelter from what they were told was an imminent threat highlights how unprepared the United States is for an actual threat. The unrealized threat also offers an opportunity to center the potential impact nuclear arms control and proliferation pose to people in a material way that is not often so tangible and visible. 

The VR experience delves into the crisis of current nuclear armament and the potential impact of today’s weapons of mass destruction that “have a destructive force tens to hundreds of times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki” on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945. It does so by bringing VR participants face-to-face with diverse residents of Hawaii, from academic experts to school children, who tell the story of receiving the emergency alert and recount how they reacted that day. 

Through VR, participants are transported onto the street outside of a designated shelter, where a father and his two young daughters have just been turned away, still in their pajamas,  after receiving the alert at 8:08 on a Saturday morning and fleeing their home. In Kaneohe, Oahu, we encounter Mitsuko Heidtke, who was 12 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on her hometown of Hiroshima in World War II. In her living room in 2018, she waters her plants and explains, matter of factly, that if she had been a year or two younger when the atomic bomb was dropped, she would have been in the elementary school where  “everybody in school died. Nobody survived.”  Instead, as a slightly older child, she was on the train on her way to school at the moment Hiroshima was bombed. From the train, she first “saw that mushroom shape of a cloud” and then watched “people running, burned all over their skin, arms, and face, speeding off.” The experience renders her impotent in the face of the nuclear threat in Hawaii. Instead of seeking shelter, she declares: “I don’t want to be a survivor.” Her living room pixelates, pulsates as if from a blast wave, and falls away, forcing participants to imagine how quickly a nuclear disaster could destroy everything in front of us with nowhere to run for protection. 

Using VR to Democratize Nuclear Policy Discussions

OTMYW uses immersive storytelling as a way to connect participants more directly with nuclear policy issues. The Games for Change report accompanying OTMYW explains that people participating in the VR experience and encountering these stories through immersion rather than 2D video were twice as likely to be engaged in nuclear policy issues in addition to being more “inspired” and “energized.”

The experience also models an inclusive approach to policymaking that contrasts with the status quo in which policy debates take place among a select few people behind closed doors. By using the immersive power of VR to literally bring participants inside of the story, making them participant-observers, OTMYW models how policymakers can reach beyond the usual decision makers and thought leaders in this space to effectively engage the public — especially those in nuclear threat zones — in nuclear policy-making. 

Dr. Tamara Lilinoe Patton, a native Hawaiian and nuclear policy expert featured in OTMYW, argues that we need fresh, new perspectives to help imagine a world free of nuclear threats. She argues that “there have been so many people affected by nuclear weapons in many different forms and their voices are excluded from the elite debates. By allowing and amplifying the voices of women, the voices of LGBTQ groups, communities of color, Indigenous communities, we can start to see an alternative view. We don’t have to accept the status quo.”  

The experience illustrates how this can be done by structuring OTMYW itself around stories from a range of nuclear policy experts and non-experts. Cynthia Lazaroff of Nuclear WakeUpCall and Daniel Ellsberg, the author of “The Doomsday Machine,” are given equal voice and equal amounts of time as Audrey and Jacqueline Branner, two girls who experienced the nuclear threat alert as elementary-aged children. VR makes this possible by closing the distance between participants and protagonists, as participants become part of the story, transported into the immersive environment, without the distance of passive observation structured by a 2D screen. 

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The VR experience concludes by shifting the perspective of participants into the first person by positioning a phone screen with the emerging alert notification as if you are looking at your own phone, reading the alert: “There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.”  As participants, rather than viewers, we look down at a phone and read the alert rather than having someone else narrate it for us, bringing us further into a shared experience. OTMYW leverages this unique perspective offered through VR with a call to action.


The Call to Action

Many experts consider nuclear policy a catastrophic failure. Ellsberg says in the game that the astronomical danger posed by today’s nuclear weapons and its unprecedented capability for destruction “hasn’t affected our plan… the weapons continue to be built. In effect, we’re ignoring it in the same way we’ve failed to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic.” Yet, despite this catastrophic failure, many policymakers are currently considering nuclear policy as a paradigm that can be applied to policymaking for AI and other emerging technologies, like VR. Dr. Alondra Nelson, former Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, in a recent op-ed, wrote that  the analogy of nuclear policy (and the other analogies being used to discuss AI policy for that matter) don’t “reflect the fact that the data that enable AI systems’ development have already become a global economic and political force.” They also “end up neglecting some critical domains on which AI will likely have a transformative impact, including health care, education, agriculture, labor, and finance.”

VR, while itself made possible through a series of AI-driven technologies, does offer the possibility of supporting nuclear disarmament efforts and policymaking for AI and emerging technologies alike by portraying the current state of these technologies and modeling the capabilities of the tools and weapons that are in operation today, as VIRTUE VR does for collider experiments. It can also project myriad scenarios that are difficult to visualize or even imagine, as Nuclear Biscuit VR does for modeling behaviors during nuclear crises. Perhaps most importantly, as OTMYW illustrates, VR experiences can also support policymaking efforts by recentering human impacts and marginalized voices through immersive experiences that can bring those voices and lived experiences to life in their own words and stories.

Sarah Papazoglakis

Sarah Papazoglakis has a PhD in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz and works as an ethics-by-design product advisor in the tech industry. She finds inspiration in diverse speculative fiction to help product and engineering leaders imagine and define positive social impacts of future technologies. She is a member of the UCSC Humanities Dean’s Council and Women Defining AI

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