- Developers are using virtual reality to recreate both historic and everyday events, and allow users to hear and experience different perspectives.
- Some experiences are designed to encourage people to look at their own behavior, while others tell lesser-heard stories.
- One takes users back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, while another documents the discrimination experienced by a Black male during throughout his life.
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As demand for virtual reality and augmented reality continues to grow, people are increasingly using it to learn about racism or hear more stories from people of color.
In some cases, developers are using the technology to recreate historic events and instances of racism in the hope it will make people address their own misconceptions, Axios reported. In other cases, projects led by people of color are creating highly inventive experiences that entertain as much as they educate.
Demand for virtual reality is set to boom over the coming years. Shipments of VR headsets are expected to grow 48% annually over the next four years, according to estimates from the International Data Corporation.
The technology is allowing developers to create interactive documentaries, likened to “living museums.”
As part of this, people are using the technology to encourage empathy with marginalized groups. VR simulations show people what it’s like to be homeless, pregnant, in a wheelchair, autistic, or a different race, according to Erick Jose Ramirez, associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Santa Clara University.
“The idea is that technology might help us better understand what it’s like to be someone on the receiving end of racist violence [which] can help us understand the roots of our own racism and then combat it,” Ramirez wrote.
Studies have previously suggested that adopting a different race during a VR experience can affect people’s unconscious behaviors during gameplay.
‘I Am A Man’ takes users back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s
“I Am A Man,” made by independent VR developer Derek Ham, takes users back to the key events of the US civil rights movement leading up to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike.
It combines historical film and photographs with voice narrations from actual civil rights participants, and worked alongside the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis to ensure its accuracy.
“The vision is to give people an experience of history in a way that provides a more personal understanding of the struggles of these marginalized people,” Ham said on the website.
“The VR experience allows one to literally walk in the shoes of people who fought for freedom and equality during the civil rights era. Most importantly, this project gives users a deeper awareness of their struggle.”
The project, which has won awards, including at the Cleveland and Nashville film festivals, can be downloaded from the Oculus Store but is also available for web, mobile, and screen immersive viewing.
But not all these VR projects focus on historical events. Some, such as “1,000 Cut Journey,” look at the everyday life of Black people to show how they face racism on a daily basis.
In the VR developed by Stanford and Columbia Universities, an assistant professor at Columbia’s School of Social Work, users witness the discrimination experienced by a Black male during both his childhood and adult life in the classroom, the workplace, and by police. This is all condensed into 12 minutes.
And “Traveling While Black,” produced by Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams and Emmy Award-winning Felix & Paul Studios, takes users to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a diner in Washington DC that was used by many Black people as a space safe during the Jim Crow laws.
During the experience, users converse with diners who discuss their experiences of restricted movement and race relations as a Black person in the US. The experience aims to confront the way people both understand and talk about race.
“If you’re not African American, you get to go into a space and be part of a conversation that you probably normally would not be privy to,” Williams told The Guardian. “If you are Black, you get to delve deep into that inner trauma that we all carry with us in America as Black people.
“I think that’s really powerful in the way that 2D storytelling can’t provide.”
VR is a vehicle for companies to teach staff about implicit bias
These VR projects aren’t just for personal use. Some are being launched on a corporate scale, too, as an innovative way to provide workplace equality, diversity, and inclusion training.
Vantage Point, for example, uses VR to teach both Fortune 500 companies and schools about racial discrimination and gender inequality. Vantage Point works alongside companies in the US, UK, Ireland, and France. During the pandemic, it has been shipping headsets to clients.
PwC and tech startup Talespin have launched similar VR implicit bias training, which immerses participants in scenarios where they learn to make inclusive hiring decisions and point out instances of discrimination.
Training programs like these could become more common in the future.
US companies spend $8 billion annually on diversity and inclusion initiatives, yet research shows that they’re actually more segregated now than they were 40 years ago.
VR could be an option for companies to ramp up their implicit bias training – and a PwC study found that it’s actually more cost-effective that classroom-based training. Participants learn quicker and stay more focused, too.
In the UK, immersive technology is also being used to highlight the experiences of people from all backgrounds and ensure their voices are being heard.
One timely example of this is The CreativeXR program, which is run by Digital Catapult and Arts Council England, and features a varied range of VR and AR-based stories, many of which have been created by people of color.
Blood Speaks: Maya – The Birth of a Superhero, Munkination, SONG, and A Place to Be are among these inventive offerings. Some can be accessed using VR headsets such as Oculus Quest; others via a mobile phone.
In Blood Speaks, an ordinary 21st-century girl transforms into a superhero whose powers derive from the process of menstruation. The unflinching story is moving and thought-provoking in equal measure.
The project, which was developed specifically for Oculus Quest using Quill and Unity, is inspired by the stories of women in Nepal who are forced into exile because their menstrual blood is considered impure, according to creator Poulomi Basu.
In a statement, Basu said: “The first phase has seen massive impact and helped activate policy change in Nepal. With a little brown girl magic, we are looking to forge new audiences through this female-led narrative that features voices that reconfigure audience perceptions of BAME [black and minority ethnic] characters and, through their interaction with Maya, we want to inspire our audience to find the magic within themselves.”
Musical projects lend themselves particularly well to immersive mediums as Munkination – a hip-hop opera with a futuristic story about climate change at its heart – demonstrates.
Its creator, HAM The Illustrator, said in a statement: “I created this experience because I want to engage my community. There aren’t many stories by and for people like me, and I want to tell a story that puts us at the forefront; our heritage, our perspective, and that history of living in equilibrium with nature, because we don’t have much time left, and we all need to be involved.”
Equally, SONG, an immersive 360° performance based on the K-Pop phenomenon, also uses music to tell a powerful story. The action takes place inside a “planetarium” installation and features simultaneous live streams in VR and 2D environments.
According to creator Sammy Lee, the project emerged out of a deep commitment to the future of the performing arts, driven by the energy of pop music as military technology.
Finally, A Place to Be, by The Independent Film Trust, explores the black British experience beyond the constraints of the present day. The 360˚ VR experience is set in a south London shebeen and uncovers the untold histories of Black Britons. Set in 1981, days before the Brixton uprising, the experience transports viewers to one of the unlicensed clubs that offered a safe space to the African-Caribbean community away from systemic racism.
Fans of immersive technology should expect to see many more similar inventive AR and VR experiences from a range of providers in 2021, as demand for diversity and culture-based projects continues to align with the need for creative ways to stay connected.