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Back in 2018, during the height of Donald Trump’s tensions with North Korea, someone mistakenly woke the people of Hawaii by activating an alarm saying a ballistic nuclear missile was on its way.
It was a horrifying event for those who woke up to the message signaling the end of the world, and now people can relive it in virtual reality in an immersive VR documentary dubbed On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World).
That documentary captures so much of the fear that people felt as they realized they might have only a short time to say to their loved ones, said Susanna Pollack, an executive producer of the VR film and CEO of Games for Change, which was one of the supporters for the VR film which aims to educate a new generation of people about the threat of nuclear war. It was a day when nothing happened, but everything changed. It is relevant at a time when Russia’s Vladimir Putin has threatened using nuclear weapons if the Ukraine war escalates.
“Games for Change has occasionally stepped into a role as executive producer on some projects. We’re not a game studio. But from time to time, if we think we can add value, we will help, typically as a not-for-profit partner,” Pollack said. “This is a VR experience that has a social impact.”
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The filmmakers at Archer’s Mark and Atlas V highlight what it was like for the people of Hawaii, who had to endure 38 minutes of uncertainty after receiving the false report of the missile alert on January 13, 2018. Other supporters of the film include Oculus VR for Good, Arte France, & BFI. It runs on the Oculus Quest 2 (Meta Quest 2) headset.
On that Saturday morning, Hawaiian citizens went about their daily routines. And then the entire state population received an SMS from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, which read: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
It was reminiscent of the alarms that Pearl Harbor was under attack at the dawn of the U.S. entry into World War II. Cellular communication networks collapsed and panic took hold as 1.4 million people understood the real, growing and urgent nature of today’s nuclear threat.
As Kauai resident Cynthia Lazaroff would later say, “The alert was false, but the nuclear threat is real…[it] is not a scenario, not a video game…we experienced it personally, felt the terror.”
In the minutes that followed, the people of Hawaiʻi were forced to confront the kind of existential questions that had been unthinkable just moments before: where could they go for shelter? What would remain of their communities if they did survive a nuclear blast? How could they explain to their children why we live in a world where such unimaginable destruction was possible? And how could their own government continue to pursue nuclear policies that threaten the entire global population every day?
On The Morning You Wake (to the End Of the World) is an audio-driven VR experience that reveals and dramatizes the fundamental injustice of a world held hostage by nuclear weapons. The experience closes with a number of pathways for people to get involved and work together towards the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Eliminating nuclear weapons
The filmmakers’ goal is to educate people about nuclear weapons and motivate people to do something about the need for eliminating the weaponry. This project and impact campaign is designed to spark the imagination and indignation of the global public to rally against the production and possession of nuclear weapons and call for their elimination at a local, state, and federal level.
The filmmakers used an array of 140 cameras and 120 infrared sensors to capture near-perfect three-dimensional moving images for every character in the film.
To the filmmakers’ knowledge, no other long-form, tetherless headset-based experience contains such a large amount of volumetric capture, and the team said it is deeply indebted to the huge team of technicians, across multiple studios and R&D programs, who made it possible to bring such a cinematic experience to a mass audience via the Quest 2 platform.
Pollack said many of the social justice groups wanted to raise the profile of alarm around nuclear weapons, but it just wasn’t as high on the list of concerns as climate change or social justice. The film has three chapters, each about 15 minutes long.
“We knew that they had that kind of creative vision to help realize this piece,” Pollack said. “Can you imagine that for nearly 40 minutes, people on the island had to grapple with the reality that their world was going to come to an end.”
Still, Pollack said there is a feeling of hope, about the change that could come in the future, that goes through the whole film.
“We really wanted to make sure that people didn’t walk out of this experience all freaked out,” Pollack said. “And so I think the team really did a great job in in doing that. You feel like you could be part of the solution. And that’s, and that’s really important.”