XR has the potential to help us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, whether that’s someone with different lived experiences from you or someone who lived at a different time than you. It can also bridge the physical gap by having these experiences available to everyone everywhere. For these and other reasons, it’s a great tool for Black History Month.
Here, we explore how different parts of the XR community celebrate Black History Month. We’ll also share insights from an interview with Breonna’s Garden creator Lady PhØenix about why we should also be talking about the Black present and “Black futures.”
Walk Through History: Cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge With ROSE and 8th Wall
ROSE, a minority-owned New York-based digital agency focused on AR, worked with XR platform 8th Wall to create a digital model of the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge and augment every step with historically significant media and information regarding the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“There is a duality between the physical experience of walking across the bridge coupled with the idea of the civil rights movement progressing that provides context that is easily lost by just reading a textbook,” said Nicole Riemer, Associate Creative Director at ROSE and designer of the experience.
The real Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama was the site of many civil rights marches, including those of Martin Luther King Jr’s march from Selma to Montgomery. Use of the bridge model engages participants by allowing them to metaphorically follow in the footsteps of figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“With the key ideas of building the bridge and using that to frame the educational experience, we immediately needed to ask: how big is this thing going to be? said Eric Liang, ROSE front-end engineer who worked on the Walk Through History AR experience. “We wanted it to be big, we wanted it to have the same gravitas and solemnity as the history that it would teach.”
One of the beautiful things about AR is that it can be experienced anywhere. Many of the most recognizable events of the civil rights movement occurred at discrete locations but changed the future of the whole country. Creating an experience that worked only at the physical bridge site would have been powerful. However, it also would have been limiting.
Virbela’s Black History Library
Virbela is a creator of virtual worlds, typically for enterprise and education. Their Black History Month offering is more on the VR side than the AR side, but that shouldn’t price anyone out. While Virbela is compatible with PC headsets, it also works via a desktop app in a 2D mode navigated with the keyboard.
While different classes of users can pay a fee to host offices and events in Virbela, and some spaces are closed off to users without special access, the platform does have an “open campus” that anyone can enter at any time. The Virbela Open Campus is the home of their Black History Month library.
You can find the library by exploring the campus but there is an easier, softer way. Select “GO TO” from the menu in the upper left corner of the screen and then select “Black History Library” from the top of the resulting dropdown menu. If you get lost or confused, Virbela staff is in the entry area and you can approach them for help.
The library itself features works by Black creatives in fields ranging from poetry to programming. When you find a topic that interests you, click on the “shelves” to take you to the related online resources. The library also features audio zones, indicated by blue circles on the floor, where you can talk with others about your experience without disturbing other visitors.
Microsoft’s Immersive Museum
Microsoft also created a virtual museum for Black History Month. The 360° gallery uses desktop controls for looking around, but you can’t walk through the gallery like Virbela, you have to click arrows on the floor. But, this isn’t a design and usability article.
Walls in the virtual museum are all dedicated to different fields like government, sports, and business. The photographs on the wall depict over 200 historic and influential African Americans. More than that, each one is clickable, bringing up a short bio on the individual and their contributions to their various fields.
Rendever Hosts Live Events With Tie-Ins to Black History Month
Rendever focuses on VR for seniors. Initially, this primarily meant a combination of curated libraries of existing 360° video and original recorded immersive content. However, with the recent release and expansion of RendeverLive, the company is increasingly focusing on real-time original content. Once an add-on for existing users, it is now its own subscription service.
“We launched RendeverLive during the pandemic when it was clear that communities needed our support,” Rendever CEO and co-founder Kyle Rand said in a recent release. “Now, any senior living community is able to subscribe to RendeverLive™ to join in on our daily live sessions.”
Because of its important social and neurological role in our lives and our memories, music has always been important to Rendever experiences – both live and recorded. This month, a series of RendeverLive sessions profiled Black musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Ella Fitzgerald, Otis Redding, Etta James, Billie Holiday, Percy Sledge, Nat King Cole, and Whitney Houston.
This would have been cool last month, but it’s even cooler in the context of the recent expansion of RendeverLive. These sessions profiling historic Black musicians will be the first exposure that many senior care residents get to the Rendever platform!
In 2020, Breonna Taylor, a full-time EMT, was shot and killed in her bed by three white plain-clothes police officers with a warrant for a man who didn’t live in the apartment and had been arrested earlier that day.
As the nation was swept up in discussing the circumstances of Taylor’s death, the artist known as Lady PheØnix created a testament to Taylor’s life. Lady reached out to XR creator SUTU (real name Stuart Campbell).
“SUTU and I have been friends since 2017. He and I worked together to realize my first exhibition entirely in AR in 2018,” PheØnix told ARPost. Lady and SUTU have worked together on a number of projects since including his VR film Heart of Darkness.
“The reception from the public has been great,” said PheØnix. Lady often hears from people who have tried the experience that they felt that the experience allowed them to process grief that they were experiencing in their own lives.
The AR experience features a model of Breonna standing in a garden of tulips, her favorite flower. A spatial recording of Breonna’s sister Ju’Niyah Palmer shares memories of her sister. Recordings by others appear as tulips. Moving closer to these tulips starts audio. A number of the audio clips were left by people who knew Breonna personally.
“We wanted to present sentimental aspects of her life from the people who knew her rather than who she was in the headlines,” said PheØnix.
Visitors to the garden are invited to leave messages either to Breonna or to their own loved ones. The app can be visited at any time.
Black Futures Month
Over the course of the interview, PheØnix brought up a relatively new idea: Black Futures Month. The idea isn’t to draw attention away from Black History Month’s highlighting accomplishments and milestones, but to look at how those historic contributions and contemporary advancements can make for a better future.
“The history is there, it speaks for itself. What’s not necessarily talked about is the future of the culture,” said PheØnix. “[Black Futures Month] is about framing the culture and our contributions and honoring that.”
PheØnix says that Breonna’s Garden is an “artistic model for transformative justice,” and would like one day to see the experience in major hospitals around the country where it can be a source of comfort to visitors. Lady sees this as a continuation of Breonna’s mission.
“With Breonna’s Garden, we’re not associating Breonna Taylor with her pain, we’re associating her with her purpose, which was helping people heal,” said PheØnix.
The experience will make its world premiere at SXSW next month and will also be in Breonna’s hometown of Louisville Kentucky for her birthday, June 5.
How Do You Celebrate Black History Month?
Some of these experiences are educational, while others are emotional. Some are experienced alone and some are best experienced with others. They range in terms of device requirements from a smartphone to a laptop, to headsets. Whatever your needs or interests are, we hope you take time to celebrate Black History Month in XR.