Anti-Racism Project Uses Virtual Reality To Let People 'Walk In Someone Else's Shoes'

Feb. 4, 2021


TUCSON, Ariz. — A University of Arizona researcher is teaming up with the Eller College of Management’s Tech Core on a new project that uses virtual and augmented reality to re-create common experiences of racism and discrimination. 

Using advanced immersive technology to place a person in a scenario creates a realistic experience of actually ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’, says Bryan Carter, an associate professor of Africana studies and the director of the UArizona Center for Digital Humanities

With $50,000 in Challenge Grant funding from University of Arizona Office of Research, Innovation and Impact, the pilot project titled Anti-Racism Extended Reality Studio, or UA-ARXRS will test the capacity of immersive and interactive "extended reality" tools, including volumetric video capture, virtual reality and digital narrative. 

“More than ever, people are tuned into the need for empathy right now,” says Ash Black, director of Tech Core. “This is an attempt to use new technology to explore empathy in a whole new way.”  

Designing scenarios to deliver extended-reality experiences "can alter perspectives and make possible more honest, concrete and productive discussions about racism than similar discussions initiated without the assistance of immersive technology," says Carter. "The invisibility of systemic racism can be uncloaked," he adds.  

The pilot project will center on creating two scenarios. The first will be a fully immersive experience, created with a high-resolution 360-degree camera. Wearing a headset, the participant will be placed as a first-person observer in an immersive video setting, such as a department meeting or classroom, with actors carrying out scripted interactions that convey common experiences of racism, such as snide comments and hostility. 

The second scenario will be an augmented experience, designed to be viewed through a mobile device, tablet or smartglasses. Geolocation software will allow the environment to play into the experience. For example, participants will be able to scan their physical area and, through augmented reality, view and interact with a police officer, to re-create a common interaction. Different responses will guide different interactions, and the first-person perspective will show what it's like to be treated unfairly. 

The augmented reality technology used in this project will be designed by the team of student developers at Tech Core,  a unique professional development experience that prepares students for successful careers in the tech industry by providing robust on-the-job training, while simultaneously advancing the University of Arizona’s positions in emerging technologies such as VR, AR and 360 media. 

“Though AR and smartglasses are currently a novelty, we expect the industry to enter a pretty explosive growth market within the next few years,” says Black. “We want the Eller College to be known as a place where we don’t just do tech—it is a place where we harness the possibilities of tech. It is the hope that these programs will not just improve human-to-machine interaction, but also improve human-to-human interaction.” 

The project combines elements of culture, art, community engagement, accessibility and research on immersive technology as a medium for personal transformation. Additional collaborators on the project include Joseph Farbrook, associate professor of art; Cynthia Stokes, assistant professor of music and Sonja Lanehart, professor of linguistics. 

The researchers will be in development phase over the spring semester. They plan to conduct usability testing in the summer and launch a pilot to various groups next fall. The goal is to integrate the simulated experiences into orientations or diversity training on campus, for groups such as incoming faculty, resident assistants and new employees. It's designed to be one element of trainings, to be used alongside readings and discussions. 

If the pilot goes well, the plan is to invite community groups, students and faculty to develop similar trainings and ideas.

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