Look no further than this photo of Mark Zuckerberg forcing hundreds of developers to wear Oculus Rift headsets for proof that virtual reality is an inevitable — if not an incredibly dystopic — part of our future. As the medium evolves, developers have pinpointed VR markets for gaming, entertainment, social media, nostalgic Seinfeld fans, and lots and lots of porn. Naturally, VR has also caught the eye of religious trailblazers who see it as a font of endless spiritual possibilities.
Last year, Derek Ham used his Ph.D. in design computation from MIT “to disrupt traditional methods of Bible-based media” and create a Google Cardboard app that allows people to explore select 3-D scenes from the Bible. (Including, of course, Adam and Eve’s infamous encounter with a certain serpent.) Recently, new faith-based startup Bible VR debuted an experience that’s even more comprehensive: a set of live-action experiences, some including actors, in historical locations, an attempt to, for example, make users feel like they are alongside the farm animals in the manger, witnessing Jesus’s birth.
Bible VR creative director Pearry Teo started the project as a way to better engage his son with religion. This year, he traveled to Israel and Palestine to film theater actors at holy sites. The result, which launched on Google Cardboard on July 12, is an extensive collection of live-action Bible reenactments designed to pique the interest of students bored by the low production values of their Sunday Bible-study lessons. I chatted with Teo about translating the Bible into virtual reality, how filming horror movies prepped him for this project, and his plans to visit a life-size recreation of Noah’s Ark.
Alyssa Bereznak: So how did this idea come about?
Pearry Teo: I think it really came from a deep feeling inside me that, as you get older you want to do something more, you want to do something that can change the world. Being a Christian, when I heard about [VR], it was like, “Why isn’t anybody taking something that’s old, traditional, and making it something new for the kids today?” My kid goes to [a] Catholic church. I’m like, “But this virtual reality thing is fun, what if I can find a way to introduce the Gospel in that way? If I can do it, perhaps I can make history … and I can make it fun.”
How did you start thinking about it as a practical, step-by-step process? I imagine the task of recreating the Bible could be intimidating.
Independent filmmakers such as [myself] have started to work on bigger films with lower budgets. As the years go by, the expectations get bigger, but the costs get smaller. So we started learning how to do better stuff with less money. What really scared me [about Bible VR] was the idea that, “Oh, what if I did something that offended somebody?” It is a really touchy subject; it’s something that’s close to people’s hearts. So rather than releasing it when we shot everything, we thought let’s release a couple of films at a time and start learning and start building a relationship with our audience.
But how did you organize it?
Bible VR is split into three different categories [within the same app]. You have the Gospel VR, the Worship Room VR, and Holy Land VR. Holy Land VR is a very, very special virtual reality experience where we actually took a virtual reality camera and we went with a historian and an archeologist around all the holy sites and did a tour in virtual reality for them. We’re there where everything happened and we make sure to educate people [about] where certain things took place, like where Jesus was born, where he died. We had to get, like, five permits from the government, the high priest. So, having that permit to clear the crowd, and to put [the camera] there and say, “Here, now you can see it clearly,” gives us an actual edge over even experiencing Israel for yourself. To be able to look around and see for yourself this church, this basilica, this grotto in all [their] glory — that’s something that’s really, really powerful to achieve without virtual reality, even if you were there yourself.
Gospel VR, a reenactment of Bible stories, is about making it fun. In today’s day and age, when kids think about going to church and Sunday school and opening the Bible, their eyes start to glaze over. I’m like “You know what? We can just take all of that stuff out right now. Later, as we get you more interested, as we get in your that brain ‘Bible equals fun,’ then you can start getting deeper into the more specific topics.”
When we were building that set, we looked at costumes that were what the traditional Jewish [and] Israeli costumes looked like back in the day, and we asked them to do something a bit more colorful. And on the set, on the table spread, we know what the traditional food in Israel looked like back in the day, but we were like, “Let’s add some grapes. Let’s add some blueberries in there. Let’s make it more colorful.”
So it’s more important that you make it an enriching experience, for the sake of interesting young people?
Exactly. That’s one of the reasons why we’re doing this. Whether you’re talking about Facebook or whether it’s the industry I’m in, there tends to be a certain way that the media paints religion.
While other [depictions] are all about, here’s the story, here’s what happened, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, my characters actually interact with the camera. So when you’re putting on a virtual reality headset, you will feel like the actors are including you in that moment of time. Let’s say the first 10 verses of the New Testament, when Gabriel the angel came up to Zechariah and prophesied the birth of John — when I was shooting it, I made sure the actors knew that the audience was not just an observer. The actors acknowledge [the audience] to be there. Gabriel was talking, looking into the camera. It makes the audience feel like, “Oh, wow they’re including me in this experience, so that means I am a part of this story.” I’ve seen a lot of people make virtual reality to show everybody like, “Oh look at what’s around you, how cool is this?!” I don’t want it to be around you, I want you to be in it. I want you to feel like you were there when Gabriel went to Zechariah, you were there when Jesus was born, you were there when John the Baptist was born.
In a more general sense, how do you think churches are responding to the idea of VR being used to teach religion?
That was one of the things that was not brought up to me by only pastors, but also Sunday school teachers. We never created Bible VR intending it to be a replacement for the church. Rather, we see it as a companion. One of the biggest problems that Sunday school teachers have informed me of, was that people go to church on Sunday, they get the sermons, they get everything — kids go to Sunday school, and you know what happens on Monday? They forget about it.
So, I don’t see it as a problem. Criticize it all you want, but you’re missing out on a tool that you can use to enhance not only your churchgoers’ experience, but your message that you give to your church audience. If they want to use it, great. If they don’t want to use it, then that’s fine, as well. I think different people have different pacing when it comes to embracing new technology. So kind of like how I would never, ever force a Muslim or an atheist to embrace Christianity, I would not force [churchgoers] to embrace a new technology, either. But it’s there for you if you ever want it.
What kind of experience have you had with VR in the past?
Coincidentally, one of my most successful films was a horror film. And so everybody has pegged me to be a horror filmmaker even though I have made only two in my life, out of 10 feature films. So when I was introduced to VR about two years ago, it was always about, “Pearry, we got to shoot a horror film, we got to shoot this, we got to shoot that.” And I’ve been working on the technology and all of that, but there was something in me that was like, it’s kind of boring, why would you want to do this? Virtual reality has always been a gimmick to me. Kind of like, if you’re putting on a headset to go on a helicopter tour over the San Francisco bridge, that’s a gimmick. But then when this idea came to me, suddenly it stopped becoming a gimmick and it becomes a tool to change the world.
I don’t know whether you want to call it God speaking to me — I like to think of it as God speaking to me. I can definitely tell you only eight months ago, I would not have seen myself where I am today. I would not even dream about it.
What else do you have in store?
There’s a guy in Amsterdam who actually built a life-size Noah’s Ark and he has invited us to shoot that in virtual reality. Sure, I won’t have animals, but at least I can educate the kids about how long it took to build it, what kind of wood it was done with — that this was not Noah with hammer and nails making an ark and going, like, “See you guys later.” This took time and dedication and faith in God’s word, you know? So we’re preparing for an August trip to go shoot that in virtual reality.