Presence for good: “Traveling While Black” VR documentary creates impactful experience

[This story from MediaPost is a first-person report that illustrates the encouraging potential of presence-evoking technology to create empathy, understanding and maybe even change. An excerpt from the Forbes story mentioned within it follows below (that story includes another picture and a 0:41 minute trailer, also available via YouTube). –Matthew]


A Time Machine Documentary

by Steven Rosenbaum, Featured Contributor
March 19, 2019

As I headed over to the West Side of Manhattan, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. I’d been promised a time machine.

I’d been told to use the password “arcade” at the door. The building was big, empty and dark. The guard behind the desk looked up, and raised an eyebrow, as if to say, “So?” I said the password, and he pointed to the elevator bank. “Third floor,” he whispered.

OK, this was kind of weird.

Upstairs I found a long hall, at the end of which was a collection of high-tech exhibits. There was an AI system that asked you questions to create a custom perfume, a fabulous flying bird VR experience, and a somewhat puzzling offer to explore “the wolves in the walls.” (Hint: They’re not really wolves.)

But it was the scale model of Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington D.C. that called my name. I’d found the time machine, in the “Traveling While Black” VR documentary.

A view of how African Americans have been treated while traveling won an Academy Award this year for the film “Green Book.” And my friend and fellow TED resident Evita Robinson’s TED Talk “Reclaiming the Globe” brought the issue to light by discussing her modern-day experiences.

So I wasn’t entirely sure what a trip in a time machine would add to my understanding.

Then I put on the VR goggles.

It was most certainly a time machine. Director Roger Ross Williams puts you in a booth in the Chili Bowl and lets you travel through the decades. I sat fact to face with people engaging in the battle that goes on today — from the restaurant’s owner Virginia Ali to civil rights leader Courtland Cox to Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, the teenager shot by Cleveland police in 2014.

After 20 minutes, I was back. But things had changed for me.

This new kind of immersive storytelling gives documentary directors an entirely new canvas. Director Williams was able to mix historic context with a modern-day story, making it hard to ignore the impact of the past on today’s growing tide of racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim hate.

“You can really experience the pain of the people talking to you and telling you their stories. You can see into their faces in a way that doesn’t let you look away. That’s something only VR can give you,” says Williams.

And for me, the immersion and the powerful reality of being in the story broke the fourth wall objectivity that can leave some documentaries engaging, but distant.

“When you experience this documentary in VR it’s all around you, and you can’t escape it,” Williams told Forbes. “I didn’t want people to be able to escape the experience they have when watching ‘Traveling While Black’ — and this immersive feeling could only be achieved through VR.”

The entire experience is the creation, or rather curation, of Charlie Melcher, the founder and creative driver behind the Future of Storytelling conference.

“We’re moving to an era where stories are things you can live and experience,” Melcher told Forbes. “It makes them an order of magnitude more powerful and memorable — the ability to feel greater empathy or be more moved because of it.”

“Coming to the Story Arcade is going to give you a glimpse into the future,” said Melcher.

Indeed, for me, he was certainly right.

“Traveling While Black” was produced by Felix & Paul Studios in partnership with the New York Times and isalso available in the Oculus Store for Oculus Rift, Oculus Go and Gear VR.

Check out the Future of Storytelling pop-up here.

[From Forbes]

Why You Need To See This VR Documentary ‘Traveling While Black’

Jennifer Kite-Powell, Contributor
February 25, 2019


Neel Patel, a freelance journalist who writes about technology, can relate to this fear.

Patel wrote the essay, What It’s Like to Fly When the TSA Profiles You for Thrillist after he noticed an increase in his stress and anxiety when he passed through airports shortly after Trump was elected.

“I was actually in Thailand during the election and came back a few days later, and even before he was inaugurated I could sense things shifting in a particular direction,” said Patel. “TSA was stopping me more, pulling me aside more frequently for “additional screening,” checking my bags more frequently.”

Patel, who is of Indian descent, says he wrote the Thrillist piece because he wanted to give a glimpse into what it’s like for him when he travels to people who aren’t minorities and haven’t been on the receiving end of racial profiling.

“I can’t leave things up to chance and leave room for error. I have to keep my emotions and facial expressions in check and know the rules much more rigorously than others because I know I’m going to deal with experiences that cause me to lose time as well as being outright humiliating and debasing,” added Patel.

Patel echos Ross Williams sentiment about the importance of experiencing something you can’t escape. He said he believes that giving people the opportunity to step into an experience like Traveling While Black that’s entirely foreign to them can only serve to help learn empathy and understand more closely the choices he and others have to make, even for a simple thing like flying.

Patel believes VR can be very useful in this experiential storytelling, but it has to be done well.

“It can’t appear like a technological gimmick or some sort of novelty—it has to be far enough that it can really simulate an experience. The entire experience needs to show that there’s a loss of choice and control, something that’s key to understanding what racial bias does to people, and why it’s so frustrating to deal with,” said Patel. “A good example of using VR to look at discrimination is Jena Friedman’s Adult Swim series, Soft Focus, where she used VR in the second episode to show male gamers the sort of sexual harassment women are inundated with.”

“I think technology can play a positive role in changing biases [..], but the key is whether it’s able to impart empathy or not,” said Patel.  “Most technology that people push forward is just designed to make life a little more convenient, and that convenience does nothing to rectify or reverse discrimination or bias problems.”

“If you think of technology as key to education, then you can approach it as a tool that can teach and can impart new insight, new wisdom, and new empathy,” added Patel.

[snip to end]

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