I AM A Man | VR Civil Rights App
Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Derek Ham, PhD, discovered the Oculus Launch Pad competition because of a random internet search in the spring of 2017. Within just a few months, that chance search sparked an award-winning educational virtual reality (VR) experience and a collaboration with the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
Oculus Launch Pad is a scholarship designed to support VR content creators from diverse backgrounds and to help VR reach a global audience. After submitting a written application, Ham was selected to be one of 100 developers invited to the Launch Pad boot camp, an informational and networking event at Facebook (parent company of Oculus) headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Participants were required to attend the boot camp; maintain a weekly developer blog during the production period, and create and submit a VR experience for judging within three months of the boot camp.
Immediately after leaving California, Ham says, “I purchased an Oculus Rift and a computer. I locked myself up and just worked and worked.” The idea for his VR project came while looking at old photographs from the civil rights movement. Ham says, “I wondered what it was like to be there?” He decided to craft an experience that immersed users in the movement during the Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Ham’s VR experience, “I Am A Man,” puts the user into a series of Memphis scenes, including on a sidewalk as peaceful strikers demonstrate along a street patrolled by tanks; outside the Lorraine Motel as shots ring out, killing King; and on a nighttime, smoke-filled street, watching news coverage through the barred windows of a jewellery shop as a police car approaches and demands, “put your hands in the air.” One viewer described her response to this scene, “When I heard those words, I was startled. I thought, ‘Me? I didn’t do anything. I’m just standing here.’ Then I realized that’s how many African Americans probably feel—then and now. It made me feel, not just imagine, how someone in that situation feels. It was really powerful.”
Ham sees that emotional connection as one of the major advantages of VR. Though VR’s roots are in gaming, developers today are beginning to use VR as a new genre of storytelling. Narrative VR can “tap into the emotions” of the user and “tell a much richer story” than an artifact behind glass in a museum, Ham explains. Facts and photos come alive in VR with the help of music, lighting, and other intricately planned details, creating an “intense” experience that encourages empathy and connection, Ham says.
While still working on the project, Ham had an idea. “When I was making good headway, I reached out to the National Civil Rights Museum—the director was a friend of a friend—and I drove to Memphis and showed them the work in progress, and they loved it.” The timing was perfect; the museum was in the process of planning a commemoration they titled MLK50, a year-long series of exhibits, events, and activities to memorialize the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination and continue the civil rights movement. Ham’s VR experience, focusing on King’s message and on the civil rights strike that immediately preceded King’s assassination, was a perfect fit for the museum. An exhibit featuring the “I Am A Man” VR experience is being planned for the near future.
At the end of the three-month production period, Ham submitted “I Am A Man” to the Oculus competition and was one of 14 VR projects to win the 2017 Oculus Launch Pad Scholarship. While Ham says that winning the competition wasn’t a contingency of the museums for inclusion in MLK50, resources from this scholarship allowed him to secure rights to newsclips, songs, and other intellectual property used in the experience, including Mary D. William’s song “Oh Freedom.” Williams is a gospel singer from Raleigh and an adjunct professor at Duke University.
Ham sees a strong future for VR in education, “I would love to see NC State at large take on broader [VR] projects… I think that’s the future. I think you will see the University and the College releasing titles, the same way universities release books and documentaries.” For now though, he is happy with how this collaborative project panned out. “The model worked really well,” Ham says, “and this potentially could be repeatable… to pour myself into VR work, to make the content, and to partner with museums.”
Staci Kleinmaier is a professional writer and photographer living in Apex, North Carolina. She uses words and images to tell stories. To see her work, visit www.stacikleinmaier.com.