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Researchers Working on Virtual Reality to Emulate Racism

An anti-racism pilot project at the University of Arizona aims to create VR sessions to immerse people in first-person experiences, with the idea that they might one day be paired with diversity training.

Virtual Reality
(TNS) – A new virtual reality, anti-racism pilot project at the University of Arizona will potentially help people better understand the experiences of others dealing with racism and discrimination in everyday life. 

Bryan Carter, director of the UA's Center for Digital Humanities, along with a team of researchers are building the project that will recreate experiences of racism and discrimination with use of augmented reality headsets and mobile devices.

A $50,000 grant is helping the team develop the " Anti-Racism Extended Reality Studio" to test the capacity of these "immersive and interactive" tools, including video capture, virtual reality and digital narrative, UA said.

"By creating these scenarios, we're hoping to engage people differently and help people step into the shoes of others by being an actual first-person observer," Carter said. "You're within a space and observing things that are happening around you and to you."

The hope is to one day pair this with the readings and discussions happening as a part of orientations or diversity training on campus for incoming faculty, resident assistants and new employees.

"We take it out of the realm of the cartoonish, so to speak," Carter said. "We're talking about real-life actors playing these roles, as opposed to avatars. We're hoping the visceral reaction people will have to something more realistic will have more of an impact."

Users will be taken through two experiences, the first immersing the user with a high-resolution, 360-degree camera to place them in a department meeting or classroom where scripted interactions with actors such as them making "snide comments and hostility" will bring the experiences to life, UA said.

"Those are the kinds of micro-aggressions that typically go unaddressed. They're difficult to track, and we want to take people into the world of someone who experiences things like that so they can differently understand what that experience is like," Carter said.

A user will be taken through a second experience with use of a mobile device or tablet to allow them to scan their physical area allowing them to see an interaction with a police officer in first-person. The project will adjust the interactions with the user based on their responses.

The development is ongoing through the spring semester with plans to launch the pilot next fall.

"Knowing the power of immersive education and knowing that the national conversation is about racism and inequality now, we're looking at leveraging this new technology to help with that dilemma," Carter said.

(c)2021 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.