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Confronting ‘The Enemy’ in Karim Ben Khelifa’s VR Installation

The project immerses participants in discussions about violence and humanity by using VR technology to present interviews with soldiers on opposite sides of conflicts in Israel and Palestine, The Congo and El Salvador.

Two enemies stand face to face, observing each other.

In turn, each of them reveals the reasons behind their decision to go to war. How they came to take up arms to defend their values, their family, their tribe, or their faith—following in the footsteps of their parents and forebears who did the same.

What exactly do we know about these combatants? What do we really understand about the motives that push human beings to engage in combat—putting themselves at risk of both being killed and of becoming killers themselves? And why continue to fight over the course of several generations? What does freedom look like for these warriors? What is their future?

Israel and Palestine, Congo, El Salvador—of all the conflicts in the world today, these seem to be the ones that most dramatically represent the improbability of those on opposite sides ever identifying with one another.

An interactive virtual reality exhibition and immersive experience, The Enemy was conceived by photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa and further developed with MIT Professor D. Fox Harrell during a visiting artist residency hosted by MIT’s Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST).

The project immerses participants in discussions about violence and humanity by using VR technology to present interviews with soldiers on opposite sides of conflicts in Israel and Palestine, The Congo and El Salvador.

Using virtual reality headsets, exhibition participants encounter real, 360-degree imaging and recordings of combatants on opposite sides of international conflicts who were interviewed by Ben Khelifa for the project. In their own words, the combatants offer personal perspectives on war, their motivations, suffering, freedom, and the future.

The project’s line producer Fabien Barati describes the experience: “We put users in a large space and equip them with a ‘backpack’ and a virtual reality headset. After an introductory explanation, users can enter three rooms, each one representing a different conflict. During the experience, users can see each other but cannot interact or collaborate.

“With the help of images and the voice of Karim Ben Khelifa, users are introduced to six fighters, two for each conflict zone. The fighters then arrive in ‘flesh and blood’ in the room and the users meet them. The fighters actually talk to the users and look at them. Each fighter behaves differently and has a small degree of artificial intelligence, which make him very lifelike. The sense of presence is really powerful. It’s like standing in front of a real person.”

The backpack itself, Barati explains, contains “a recently released model of the MSI VR One computer. It’s extremely powerful—kind of like a gaming computer—and it has beautiful, fluid graphics. What made this computer really work for us was that it runs on battery power, and you can change the battery on the fly. You don’t have to turn off the computer to change batteries during the experience. The backpack connects to the user’s VR headset and works with a tracking system on surfaces of several hundred square metres.

“Since the computer has to know exactly where the user is in order to send the right image, we use an OptiTrack motion-capture system with the VR headsets. This requires placing a number of infrared cameras in this large space to detect the small positioning balls on the headset. Each user has different ball positions or ‘constellations,’ which the system can distinguish and pinpoint in space. There is also a server running all of the users’ backpacks. It retrieves this detection data in the space and sends it back to each user. It also lets you begin and end the experience, or to restart it if needed.”

He notes there were considerable challenges with the project: “Managing the hardware. Motion capture, virtual reality, wireless, multiuser mode… It was a huge challenge! But another challenge was making the fighters seem real—not just in terms of how they looked, but also how they moved. All of the characters in The Enemy are real fighters, and they move just like their subject does in real life. Several graphic designers and animators worked on recreating them from different sources. When we went to the actual combat zones to interview the fighters, we did a lot of photography, photogrammetry, 3D digitization and video. We collected an enormous amount of data in order to achieve extremely accurate results.

Looking Virtual Reality in the Eye

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

Confront The Enemy in this Virtual Reality Exhibition

“We learned a lot about the user experience—how to make it more fluid, effective, and appealing,” Barati concludes. “We made a ton of adjustments and changes to the entire content and experience. Ninety-five percent of people have a very respectful attitude toward the fighters. Instead of testing the technology to see what it can and cannot do, people listen carefully, as if they were standing in front of a real person. There were even a few users who were quite scared!

“The experience lasts a little over 45 minutes, and when you come out of it, it’s important that you’ve learned something—that you’ve changed a bit as person and can say something positive about it.”

“Ben Khelifa’s experience is extremely effective in communicating, without making any pointed statements, the similarities between the men who have labeled each other “enemy,” says Coralie Kraft. “Yes, these combatants are fighting for opposing causes—and yet their reasons for fighting are often the same. They’re afraid for their families; they want to stop their enemies from harming their children. 

“In one telling moment, after each man describes why they fight their enemy, Ben Khelifa asks, “Can you tell us about the most joyful moment in your life?” One man replies, ‘When my daughter as born. When I first held her in my arms.” The other says, “The greatest moment in my life was conceiving my daughter.’

“Hearing stories of love or grief or terror from an individual is a powerful experience. As empathetic beings, we respond to expressions of emotion and body language that are not always communicable via still photographs. In The Enemy, our imaginations don’t have to stretch as far—instead of conjuring an image of a nebulous, anonymous ‘Israeli soldier,’ we have Gilad, a father of two daughters, in front of us, saying ‘Even though I’m talking as a fighter and a commander of a combat unit, I have always been driven by a feeling of defense and survival.’ Like in a photograph, I can see the ridges between his eyes. Like a video, I can hear his voice. But in The Enemy, the combination—plus the ostensible physicality of his being, flesh and blood—makes me think ‘man’ rather than ‘image.'” To read the full article, click here.