Kiya is an intense VR recreation of a domestic murder-suicide

by Matthew Terndrup • August 12th, 2015

On a regular Tuesday morning, June 18, 2013, an argument broke out between two people in North Charleston, South Carolina. After a long history of violence, Peter Centil Williams grabbed a gun and shot his ex-girlfriend Zakiya Lawson, whom they had a child together. He then turned the gun on himself and pulled the trigger while cops move in with weapons in hand as Lawson’s sister(s) scream in turmoil outside.

Soon after, authorities released the audio of the 911 calls recorded during the incident providing a glimpse into the painful events that unfolded that day. Now several years later, the immersive journalism team behind Emblematic Group in collaboration with Al Jazeera America recreated the tragic death of Zakiya Lawson, in an effort to raise awareness of domestic violence. The results are astonishingly powerful.

Emblematic Group is well-known for pushing the boundaries of what is “acceptable” in virtual reality. Their team, led by Nonny de la Pena, continuously touch on controversial topics of violence, race, gender, and empathy – which occasionally sparks strong adverse reactions.

One of their projects named Use of Force takes actual cell-phone video footage of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas who was beaten and tasered to death by the border patrol and is translated into a VR scenario. Another experience One Dark Night tells the story of the day teenager Travyon Martin was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. These demonstrations and others tap into one of the largest driving forces of virtual reality, which is the ability to empathize with a character like never before. Kiya takes that idea even further.

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Watching the events unravel of Kiya’s death in virtual reality while at SIGGRAPH 2015 was remarkably thought provoking. Despite the graphics looking much like a computer game, the experience felt more real than I expected; mostly due to the use of the actual audio recorded at the scene. I could sense the pain and frustration of the sisters as they tried to get the police out to the house to help get Williams to put the gun down. Their emotions resonated throughout the entire demo.

One of the sisters even left the phone on while she talked with Zakiya Lawson and Peter Centil Williams inside the room. Hearing some of their last words added a whole new level of realism to the experience, which was a bit saddening to say the least. Knowing that someone was about to die, an urge to try and save the victim kept arising – but unfortunately there was nothing I could do. Lawson’s and Williams’ fates were already sealed.

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There were some technical issues that distracted from the story though. For one, the tracking of the GearVR seemed slow; perhaps due to the application that was playing the experience. I could see the edge of the perspective, showing a dark, separated environment behind me. In addition, the audio was pretty horrible. It makes sense that the recording itself is oftly rough, but the sound waves could have probably been smoothed out a bit.

Despite those small grievances, Kiya provides an insightful look into the story of a woman who died too young. Zakiya Lawson’s murder, and the recreation of it in VR, takes full advantage of the many potentials of the medium. It evokes strong emotions, shows an exclusive look into the lives of people in a unique way, and has a powerful call to action. With three women killed every day by their intimate partners in the United States, Kiya is ultimately a motivation to help stop that trend. It hopes to show why this type of scenario should never happen to anyone’s sister (or wife, mother, and daughter) ever again. Will it reach that goal? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, be sure to check out what else Emblematic Group is up to be visiting their website. They have a lot of amazing projects that are totally worth looking at.

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