This VR living room lets you step inside a data-privacy nightmare

Persuasion Machines brings to life all the devices listening, tracking and trying to manipulate you inside your home.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
3 min read

Persuasion Machines uses virtual reality to transport viewers from this installation at Sundance into a living room full of smart devices. 

The Othrs

The makers of Netflix documentary The Great Hack have moved into virtual reality, and they brought along the data-privacy dystopia we're all living in.

Persuasion Machines, a VR experience running this week at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, lets you step into a virtual living room that starts out looking blandly conventional -- the kind of vaguely modern space that's picture-perfect for Airbnb. It's decked out with smart devices like those probably peppering your own home: a smart TV, a voice-enabled speaker, a laptop, a phone

But this living room visualizes the data footprint you leave behind each time you use one of these devices and the ways that data can be exploited. The filmmakers call it "making the invisible visible."

"There's a layer beyond what you can even do in a film, to totally immerse yourself in what we call the data-verse," Karim Amer, one of the creators of Persuasion Machines and The Great Hack, said in an interview ahead of the VR project's premiere Friday. "Are you in control of these smart devices, or are they in control of you? And what does that mean?"

Persuasion Machines begins in a standard apartment living room, which progressively degrades to reveal the digital fingerprints coursing through it. 

The Othrs

As you wander around the room, you're asked to approve a terms-and-conditions agreement, which glitches to show a hacked message warning you to resist checking the box. The soothing voice of a digital assistant guides you, and all the conveniences that these devices provide start to pop up around you.

Throughout the experience, digital portals open. Stepping inside them triggers explanations about how all these devices leave behind a trail of data that companies and others can exploit to their own ends. Then each time you return to the living room back through a portal, the look of your environment has degraded from the conventional living room into a glitching box coursing with the digital data remnants that you're always leaving behind. 

It's a little like stepping into some of the animated sequences of The Great Hack, which premiered at Sundance a year ago. The film used animation to convey the ways our routine internet usage can create an intimate record of who we are, where we are and what we're doing. 

Persuasion Machines is part of the festival's New Frontier program, a special section focused on tech-driven storytelling and art. This year's program underscores the growing influence of technology, like virtual reality and artificial intelligence, as emerging formats for storytelling and as societal trends that the creators cross-examine with their work. 

In addition to Persuasion Machines, several other projects at New Frontier use technology to turn the mirror back on technology itself, aiming to reflect the dilemmas technology is creating in our lives. 

Chomsky vs. Chomsky: First Encounter, for example, uses virtual reality to enable festival-goers to talk face-to-"face" with a conversational bot called Chomsky_AI, which was trained on the digital archives of linguist Noam Chomsky. Even in this experience, everything you say to Chomsky_AI is logged and saved, to be fed back into the bot later to learn more.

In Persuasion Machines, the soothing digital assistant becomes increasingly disgruntled with you for failing to complacently agree to all the digital surveillance in the room. She  -- like so many digital assistants, this one is gendered female -- refers to you as paranoid and treats you as undesirable. But after the VR ends and you take off your headset, Persuasion Machines offers a Data Detox Kit from Mozilla and Tactical Tech, a Berlin-based organization. They're essentially how-to materials for data privacy 101, like how turn down the faucet of data on your smartphone. 

"The admission fee to the connected world is not free," Amer said. "There is a cost, a societal cost, that we haven't figured out how to account for yet, but it has implications on all of us today and our future generations... My agenda, if there is one, is to empower people to continue to think critically and ask questions."

But maybe also double-check all apps you're letting track your location on your phone. That's a good start, too. 

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