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Emersonian’s Mixed Reality Documentary Addresses U.S. Eviction Crisis

Millions of people are evicted throughout the U.S. on a yearly basis. A new mixed reality documentary tackles the eviction crisis by speaking with tenants, children of tenants who’ve been evicted, landlords, lawyers, and even moving company employees, bringing the eviction crisis to life.

“I was really drawn to the idea of continuing down a path of using technology to communicate complex stories, and this particular project had the extra affordance as being an advocacy tool for new policies around housing and tenant rights,” said producer Barry Pousman ’06.

These Sleepless Nights, which is designed for a Magic Leap headset, premiered at the Venice Biennale in October. Inspired by Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, and set to music by Philip Glass, the documentary engages audiences with interactive storytelling.

After putting on an augmented reality (AR) headset, viewers walk around and touch an 8-foot cube that houses all of the stories within its outer four walls, said Pousman. There are five stories on each side of the cube and viewers have visuals that come out of the wall, or the wall opens to reveal a story.

“There are moments in the 20 minutes that do reflect people. It’s designed to be a high art piece that is a metaphor for the complexity and scale of the issue,” said Pousman. “The complexity comes to life through different people’s stories. But the scale comes from the visuals…There are millions of stories and these are a selected few of the sea of people this affects.”

The stories take place in the Washington D.C.-Virginia area, and outside of Milwaukee where Desmond’s book is based. Pousman reached out to Desmond, and the author signed off for the filmmakers to pursue stories in Milwaukee with some of Desmond’s subjects.    

Pousman said the movie was well-received at Venice Biennale, an international film festival that happens every other year, and presents a more “arty, instrumental and high-brow” class of movies. While the movie didn’t receive any awards, Pousman was honored to have the movie selected for the festival.

A unique part of the festival is that all AR and virtual reality (VR) projects were in one big building covering an entire.

Photo of Barry Pousman
Barry Pousman (

Pousman said they are trying to get the movie into the Magic Leap app store, and it would be free to download. But there are constraints with file size and technical specifications that need to be met. And because the movie was built for a cube there’d have to be some adjustments.

“We’re working with Magic Leap to know what that experience would be like. You’d probably see chapters one through four on the same wall,” said Pousman, adding there are discussions with Magic Leap to make the documentary a public art installation in U.S. cities.

Pousman has also continued to stay connected to Emerson. He’s working with Emerson’s Engagement Lab on a VR project about the Middlesex Jail & Correction Center. He also received young alumni award at Alumni Weekend in 2017.

“I think it’s really exhilarating to address social ills and humanitarian crises through media, and particularly through emerging media where we can still capture audiences and inspire them to take action,” said Pousman.

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