Dec 14, 2020 - Technology

Recreating racism in VR to fight real racism

Image of the VR film "I Am A Man" shows protesters for the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike

An image for the VR film "I Am A Man." Photo courtesy of Derek Ham

New virtual and "augmented" reality technology is allowing users to experience 1960s civil rights marches, the agony of segregation for Black Americans, or life in a Japanese American internment camp.

Why it matters: For now, this is largely a tool for educators seeking new ways to teach young Americans about the legacy of slavery and racism. But there's growing commercial potential as more people become comfortable using technology to expand their horizons.

  • Shipments of VR headsets are expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 48% from 2020 to 2024, the International Data Corporation reports.
  • The augmented reality market is estimated to jump from $10.7 billion in 2019 to $72.7 billion by 2024, according to ReportLinker.

Details: Projects created in universities and private labs forces users to walk in the shoes of people who faced (and still face) discrimination by recreating historic events.

  • I Am A Man VR Experience places participants at the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike and events leading to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Traveling While Black takes users to Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington as travelers show the difficulties African Americans experienced in the U.S. during Jim Crow.
  • Mapping Amache allows users to visit virtual remodeling of Camp Amache in Granada, Colo., that detained Japanese Americans during WWII. The models were created by drones and VR technology.

How it works: Projects can be downloaded or watched via 360 video on VR headsets. Users feel as if they are in the moment.

  • Participants can interact with controllers but their hands on those of people of color.
  • Those without pricey VR headsets can experience most projects by using 360 videos on laptops or phones.
  • Users engaged with AR projects by pointing smartphones at sites (or at home) that recreate models of locations.

What’s next: "I Am A Man" creator Derek Ham is designing a new VR project based on the Negro Baseball Leagues. "You can get struck out by Satchel Paige, then see him having a hard time getting a hotel room."

  • Martinez is developing a digital map of forgotten Mexican Americans lynched in Texas that will include their names and planned VR recreation of sites.
  • Columbia University Social Work professor Courtney D. Cogburn, the lead creator of 1000 Cut Journey, forces participants to embody a Black male via VR from a child to an adolescent, then an adult.
  • Start-up Vantage Point is developing a VR project to help companies fight racial discrimination and gender inequality through interaction.

What they’re saying: "This is a powerful medium that allows you to experience the perspective of another person, and maybe, just maybe, you'll change your own perspective [on] how people experienced life as a Black person," said Ham.

  • "It took us five years to get four historic markers that memorialized Mexican Americans lynched in Texas," said Refusing to Forget member and University of Texas history professor Monica Muñoz Martinez.
  • "These new technologies allow us to circumvent those who refuse to acknowledge this history."
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