Anti-Racism Project Uses Virtual Reality to Let People 'Walk in Someone Else's Shoes'

Bryan Carter

Bryan Carter, Director of the Center for Digital Humanities, works with augmented and virtual reality technologies that create immersive and interactive experiences.

A University of Arizona researcher is embarking on a new project that uses virtual and augmented reality to re-create common experiences of racism and discrimination.

While the old idiom "to walk a mile in someone else's shoes" is a familiar reminder to empathize with others, it can be little more than an imaginative exercise. Using advanced immersive technology to place a person in a scenario can create a much more realistic experience, says Bryan Carter, director of the UArizona Center for Digital Humanities.

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

"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," said Carter, an associate professor of Africana studies. "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. You're within a space and observing things that are happening around you and to you."

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," Carter said. "The invisibility of systemic racism can be uncloaked," he added.

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.

"Those are the kinds of microaggressions 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.

The second scenario will be an augmented experience, designed to be viewed through a mobile device or tablet. 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, Carter said.

"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."

The project combines elements of culture, art, community engagement, accessibility and research on immersive technology as a medium for personal transformation, Carter said. His collaborators on the project  include Joseph Farbrook, associate professor of art; Cynthia Stokes, assistant professor of music; Sonja Lanehart, professor of linguistics; and Ash Black, director of the Eller College of Management's Tech Core team of student developers.

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, Carter said, 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.

"We don't just want this to be someone putting on a headset and then going away when it's over. It's meant to be combined with other activities," Carter said. "The plan is after we've piloted this, we'll be able to invite community groups, students and faculty who have an idea or scenario, or a group they'd like to go through this, and we'll be able to assist them with the development of that idea."

Carter compared the project to the 1,000 Cut Journey project created by Courtney D. Cogburn of Columbia University. That project uses virtual reality to create an experience "through which a participant can viscerally embody an avatar who encounters various forms of racism." The various scenarios follow students through developmental years, showing how ongoing experiences of discrimination build on one another.  

"We're taking that idea to the next level – to make this something that's realistic for adults and college students to help people understand how that sort of racism can be internalized," Carter said. "Now that we know this is a problem, how can we have others understanding that from their own perspective?"