This VR Exhibit Lets You Connect with the Human Side of War

A pioneering photojournalist hopes VR can restore war photography’s dramatic power to influence and inform us.

A split screen shows Gilad, at left, a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces, and Abu Khal, at right, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.


Sun streams through a grid of skylights, carving the gallery’s wooden floor into a checkerboard. When I look up, I can see wispy clouds passing overhead. Large photos hang on the gallery walls. They’re pictures of a landscape devastated by war and portraits of men fighting in those wars.

I hear footsteps behind me. I turn around and watch two figures enter the room and take up stations in front of the portraits. They’re the men from the pictures.

An unseen narrator explains that the shorter one, Jean de Dieu, was a child soldier recruited by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). It’s a Hutu group waging war against Rwanda from its base in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The other, Patient, is a sergeant in the Congolese army, which is allied with Rwanda’s ruling Tutsi ethnic group.

I know they’re both virtual characters, re-created through 3-D scanning and computer graphics. But they’re startlingly realistic—far more lifelike than anything I’ve seen in a game or movie.

As I approach Jean de Dieu, who looks sad and tired, a conversation begins. The narrator asks: Who is your enemy? What is violence for you? What makes your enemy inhuman? Jean answers in halting, vulnerable tones. I listen to his story of being forced into a refugee camp at age 11 and seeing Congolese militia kill his parents, their brains splattering onto him. Of course he’d hate the Tutsi, and everyone aligned with them.

Now the narrator quizzes Patient. He says the army pursues the FDLR because its soldiers rob, rape, and murder Congolese citizens. “He has no human values and can no longer change his mind,” Patient says of his despised FDLR enemy. “He wants to stay in the forest as part of the rebellion like a savage. Only beasts live in the forest.”

Jean de Dieu (left) fled Rwanda as a child and watched as militia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo killed his parents. Patient (right) fights for the Congolese Army.

But Patient and Jean de Dieu also tell the narrator something else: they just want to live in peace with their neighbors and families. And as I walk through three more rooms and meet more combatants—gang members in El Salvador, a reservist in Israel and a Palestinian fighter in Gaza—I hear that shared hope flicker through in answer after answer. These men all have different stories, different traumas, and different allegiances. But their dreams are the same. Abu Khaled, in Gaza, says 23 of his family members have died during the Israeli occupation, but he still hopes for “peace and brotherhood” in the region.

After 40 minutes, I’m guided to a spot on the floor that resembles a Star Trek transporter pad. An assistant helps me remove my Oculus Rift VR headset and backpack, and I’m back on the ground floor of the MIT Museum, where this ambitious virtual-reality exhibit, “The Enemy,” made its North American premiere in the fall of 2017.

The exhibit—or maybe “experience” is a better word—is the creation of the Belgian-Tunisian photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa. He interviewed and filmed the fighters and then worked with Fox Harrell, a professor of digital media and artificial intelligence at MIT, and French partners Camera Lucida, France Télévisions Nouvelles Ecritures, and Emissive to bring them to life inside the virtual gallery.

Part of what’s groundbreaking about “The Enemy” is the sheer size of the simulation: the museum cleared out a 3,000-square-foot space so that up to 15 Oculus-wearing visitors at a time could roam freely in the virtual world. The fidelity of the characters and their movements is also striking. You can see the stubble on their chins and the tattoos on their arms and torsos. Thanks to eye-tracking sensors, each figure’s gaze is locked onto yours, cementing the illusion that the fighters are speaking directly to you. The technology works well enough to disappear, allowing you to form direct, empathetic connections with Jean, Patient, Abu, and their fellow combatants.

This photograph of Jean de Dieu is one of those used to create his avatar.


Which is exactly what Ben Khelifa wanted. “My interest was, can you look at these people in the eyes?” he told me. “Can they look you in the eyes? And what is happening when two people look at one another in the eyes? There is a connection, whether we want it or not.”

Right now, the “The Enemy” is accessible only to museum visitors, but Ben Khelifa says he wants those trapped in conflict zones, especially young people, to experience it too. If the installation can help people see that every conflict is grounded, to some extent, in stereotypes and misunderstandings, they might come to understand one another better and stop fighting, he believes. It’s a noble goal—but will all future VR producers have such benevolent aims?

Blown away

The idea that VR might be a medium for a new kind of journalism took hold around 2015, when the New York Times released its first VR documentary, “The Displaced,” about three young war refugees. Technically, the pieces produced by the Times’ VR studio are 360° films. Viewers can look in different directions, but otherwise, they watch passively. Sticklers reserve the term “virtual reality” for simulated 3-D environments in which users can move around at will and control objects, as gamers can on platforms such as HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, and Oculus Rift. That’s the type of virtual reality that Ben Khelifa, a freelancer who has covered conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Israel, Yemen, Somalia, and many other countries, wanted to employ for “The Enemy.”

A virtual-reality re-creation of a fighter, speaking in his own words, might help viewers feel the impact of war more deeply, Ben Khelifa believed. So he went to Israel and Gaza, where he found soldiers willing to be videotaped. While they talked, he scanned them with a Microsoft Kinect and photographed them from multiple angles. He says his experience as a photojournalist helped him get the subjects to open up. “These fighters understand that I’ve been through a lot of fighting too—without holding a gun, but holding my camera,” Ben Khelifa says. “And I think there is—I wouldn’t call it a brotherhood, but an understanding that we both know what war is.”

In April 2015, at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, Ben Khelifa showed a prototype of “The Enemy,” featuring only Abu Khaled and an Israeli soldier named Gilad. “People were just blown away by the realism of the fighters,” he says. But these early figures didn’t walk, turn their heads, or react to users. “From there, what I’ve been realizing is, the more the fighters are modified to recognize your presence, the more you recognize the presence of the fighter,” he says. “You spend less time wondering if he’s real or not. And you get to listen.”

Gilad, a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces, is filmed for the creation of his avatar as it will appear in “The Enemy.”


A few years earlier Ben Khelifa had met MIT’s Fox Harrell, whose book Phantasmal Media explores how creators of VR and other computational media can build experiences that mutate depending on the user’s actions. Harrell says he’s fascinated by the narrative techniques of the 1950 Kurosawa film Rashomon, which retells the story of a brutal rape and murder from multiple perspectives. “I’ve been interested in how you can use algorithmic processes in AI to trigger these kinds of effects,” he says.

For “The Enemy,” Harrell helped Ben Khelifa and his team of developers in France build a system that surveys visitors before the experience and then monitors them on camera and via the Oculus headset as they interact with each fighter. Visitors’ responses determine the order in which they experience the three conflicts, the message they receive in the final gallery, and even the weather visible through the skylights.

John Durant, the director of the MIT Museum, says “The Enemy” took the museum into untested territory, both technologically and politically. “It was very appealing, because a lot of us talk about the ways in which technology may or may not contribute to addressing certain kinds of social and political issues, and sometimes people talk about it more than actually experiencing it and trying it,” he says.

The poignant stories told by Amilcar and Jorge, members of two rival gangs in San Salvador, give that section of the exhibit a sticking power that a photo essay just wouldn’t have, Durant says. “Most of the people who are likely to visit this museum don’t have the experience of growing up as members of a gang where a kind of tribal loyalty is perhaps the most fundamental thing you know,” he says. “So it takes some effort, honestly, to try and think about what the world might be like from that point of view. I think ‘The Enemy,’ to me, made it much easier.”

Amilcar Vladimir (left) and Jorge Alberto (right) are members of warring gangs in El Salvador.


Visitors to the museum report similar revelations. “I’m from Colombia … I’ve lived close to war,” one visitor wrote in the guest book. “Forgiveness is gonna be always the hardest part. For forgiveness to appear, there’s gotta be compassion, and that is what ‘The Enemy’ brought me. Thank you.”


VR has, in fact, begun to compete with old-fashioned photojournalism and TV news. VR producers have been flocking to Southeast Asia lately to document the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim-majority ethnic group under assault in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. A refugee featured in a searing Al Jazeera VR film recounted how security forces in Myanmar had killed her husband and raped her. An Emmy-nominated VR film shot inside a Rohingya confinement camp by the anti-atrocity group the Nexus Fund showed prisoners languishing with little food or medical care. “I can’t put everybody on a plane and take them to Myanmar, but I know that if I could and they could see this in person, there’s nothing they wouldn’t do to help,” Nexus Fund executive director Sally Smith told CNN.

Jorge Alberto’s hand bears gang-related tattoos.


But if VR is an empathy machine, where will all that empathy be directed in the future? Here in the United States, meddlers have hijacked Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to generate outrage and spread falsehoods, with political consequences we are only beginning to understand. VR’s immersiveness and realism pull even more directly on our heartstrings. There’s nothing to stop Buddhist extremists in Myanmar, for instance, from making VR films designed to further inflame passions against the Rohingya. “Am I scared by it? Yeah,” Ben Khelifa says. “If you can create empathy, you can brainwash people too.”

In “The Enemy,” the VR storytelling is even-handed to a fault. In fact, if the piece has a limitation, it’s that it refuses to judge the merits of each fighter’s cause. But that limitation is also a strength. The parallel questions put to each combatant allow the visitor to construct “this kind of model of what’s the same and what’s different” for each fighter, Harrell explains. “And that can be some impetus to thinking beyond the preconceptions you had of the conflict.”

Without this kind of commitment to fairness and factuality, VR could easily devolve into a propaganda tool. But that’s true of all journalism. We’re fortunate that a creator with Ben Khelifa’s vision and conscience is showing the way.

Wade Roush is a technology journalist and the producer and host of Soonish, a podcast about technology and the future.

“The Enemy” was produced by Camera Lucida, France Télévisions, the National Film Board of Canada, Emissive, and Dpt, and was staged at the MIT Museum in late 2017. It will continue its North American tour in Montreal and other Canadian cities. For tour dates visit

Happy Birthday Langston Hughes!

Today is the first day of Glendale Community College’s Write 6X6 and the birthday of one my favorite poets, Langston Hughes. His words and social activism have always resonated with me. Every year, I typically pick one of Hughes’ poems and share it with others. This year my choice seems unusually relevant given the current state of affairs in our national politics. In spite of the worries I have about our country today, the words of a son of a school teacher, speak to me and remind me of the importance of my work in higher education and make me feel a little more optimistic.

Community Colleges, by providing an accessible pathway to education, are gateways for those who might otherwise not find equality or opportunity. The feeling of helping people from all walks of life working to make a better life has always made me proud of the work I do. I’m even more proud of all of the students who have persevered and accomplished great things.  They give me hope for our future.

Written in 1935 by American poet Langston Hughes.

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.


(America never was America to me.)


Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.


(It never was America to me.)


O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.


(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)


Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?


I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

I am the red man driven from the land,

I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—

And finding only the same old stupid plan

Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.


I am the young man, full of strength and hope,

Tangled in that ancient endless chain

Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!

Of work the men! Of take the pay!

Of owning everything for one’s own greed!


I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.

I am the worker sold to the machine.

I am the Negro, servant to you all.

I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—

Hungry yet today despite the dream.

Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,

The poorest worker bartered through the years.


Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream

In the Old World while still a serf of kings,

Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,

That even yet its mighty daring sings

In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned

That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas

In search of what I meant to be my home—

For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,

And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,

And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came

To build a “homeland of the free.”


The free?


Who said the free?  Not me?

Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?

The millions shot down when we strike?

The millions who have nothing for our pay?

For all the dreams we’ve dreamed

And all the songs we’ve sung

And all the hopes we’ve held

And all the flags we’ve hung,

The millions who have nothing for our pay—

Except the dream that’s almost dead today.


O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—

Who made America,

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.


Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,



O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!


Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes.