U. of Illinois students crowdfunding VR films to increase understanding about police-minority relations

[This story from the Naperville Sun describes a current effort by University of Illinois students to use virtual reality and presence for good. The GoFundMe page for the project includes a 2:35 minute video, Chicago’s WCAI-TV has a short news story on the project, and more information is available on the website of the students’ YouMatter Studios. –Matthew]

[Image: Jewel Ifeguni, of Naperville, top left, hopes to raise enough money to make a virtual reality film with fellow University of Illinois students, Mia Ruggiero, bottom left, Katie Mimnaugh, top right, and Apurva Chakravorty, bottom right. (Credit: Jewel Ifeguni)]

U. of I. student from Naperville crowdfunding virtual reality film about Sandra Bland

Suzanne Baker, Naperville Sun

Jewel Ifeguni has a high-tech way for people to experience the old adage of walking a mile in another’s shoes before judging them: virtual reality.

The University of Illinois student from Naperville has two weeks to crowd-fund a class project that will give virtual viewers three different perspectives of the same fundamental story.

Ifeguni said she and her team of three coeds want to start filming over spring break, which starts March 17. But they are only a third of their way toward their “Help us Produce a VR Film for Good” GoFundMe goal of $5,000 for equipment and props.

The college junior got the idea for her three perspectives project after completing a virtual reality assignment in December that centered on former Naperville resident Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman who died in a Texas jail cell in July 2015, three days after being arrested during a traffic stop.

In the piece, the viewer experiences what Bland might have faced when her car was stopped by the officer.

Ifeguni said she wants to expand the concept to show how a mother, police officer and son might feel when the black teen heads to the last high school party to celebrate graduating with honors. Unfortunately the trip isn’t what he planned it to be.

Each of the three pieces is filmed as if the viewer is peering through the eyes of each character. “You will be in different bodies,” she said.

Each film also will provide a bit of a back story to explain each person’s reactions and biases.

For example, in Ifeguni’s story, the event occurs on the police officer’s first day on the job.

Fellow project member Mia Ruggiero, a U. of I. freshman from Wheaton, said the virtual reality series addresses the relationship between police and minorities and how others relate to social stigma. It’s also a chance for viewers to empathize from multiple perspectives.

“It’s really not about police brutality,” Ifeguni said. “It’s looking at all sides of the same story.”

“It will open people’s minds to other perspectives,” she added.

Ifeguni said in a broader sense, the project is a way to generate conversations.

A 2015 graduate of Metea Valley High School in Aurora, Ifeguni started at the Urbana-Champaign campus studying computer science.

However, what really sparked her interest was telling stories in the computer science realm of virtual reality. She switched her major to communications, where she’s specializing in media effects.

While decisions on her career path grew out of her college experience, the former Metea student said high school gave her the confidence to achieve those goals.

“I really did have a lot of support at Metea,” Ifeguni said.

Specifically she credits the encouragement she received from her Advance Placement teachers in English, history, calculus and computer science and Metea deans Jennifer Reyes, Rosalinda Sosa and Jennifer Rowe.

“They showed me how to use my voice; they really helped me build my confidence,” Ifeguni said.

If Ifeguni is able to work over spring break, she said the plan is to edit and post the mom’s story first sometime in May, followed by the police officer and then the son.

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