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Rocklin Woman Helps Highlight Deaf Community In VR Documentary

ROCKLIN (CBS13) — A Rocklin woman has taken her love for sign language virtual. She has been featured in a documentary that premiered at Sundance about meeting people through virtual reality with part of it focusing on the deaf community.

Before she ever learned to speak, Tia Johnson communicated with sign language.

"I was raised with sign language when I was an infant," she said. "It's really great for hearing deaf or otherwise children to learn sign."

Johnson quickly realized signing would be a lifelong passion.

"I started volunteering at local deaf churches and doing odd jobs," she said.

She eventually joined Helping Hands, a group that offers classes and social events with more than 4,000 members all in virtual reality.

"Our deaf community in VR is just so big and proud," Johnson said.

Her work teaching virtual classes caught the attention of documentary filmmaker Joe Hunting.

"It was a story really worth sharing," Hunting said.

Hunting directed "We Met In Virtual Reality," a story that follows three VR characters, including Jenny — the pink-haired sign language teacher and Johnson's actual avatar.

Hunting was inspired to make the film after the pandemic hit in 2020.

"COVID was such a pivotal time for VR," he said. "The relationships everyone had were important because we couldn't meet in person anymore."

The film took off and premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews.

"It couldn't have gone better for the film," Hunting said.

But how does a feature-length movie filmed entirely in virtual reality actually work?

"I'm holding a camera in my avatar's hand," Hunting said.

In real life, the camera is a controller that has the capability to zoom in and out and act like a real film camera, while both Johnson and Hunting are outfitted in a headset and full body tracking suits, including gloves that can detect movement.

"So when I move each of my individual fingers, it's translating that into code and then that code is communicating to my avatar," Johnson said. "I am signing in-game and signing in real life at the same time."

Johnson's goal moving forward is to achieve success for the film and bring more attention to the deaf community.

"I'm super happy to have this opportunity. So, thank you so much," Johnson said.

The film "We Met In Virtual Reality" has a 94% Rotten Tomatoes score.

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