Augmented reality brings to life words of Stanford sex assault survivor

[This story illustrates potential roles of presence experiences in contesting not only the appearance but the personal and social meaning of places and events that occurred in them, and more generally the use of presence as a tool of protest. See the original story in the San Francisco Chronicle, where it features 5 more images and related links. –Matthew]

[Image: An augmented reality app includes a quote from the victim of a notorious 2015 sexual assault on the Stanford campus. Credit: Photos by Cody Glenn / Special to The Chronicle]

Augmented reality brings to life words of Stanford sex assault survivor

Anna Bauman
September 27, 2019

A fountain gurgles not far from shaded benches in a small, peaceful garden at Stanford University, but the serenity of the scene feels off to Kyle Qian.

The garden was created to replace the scene of one of the most notable crimes to ever occur on the campus, but nowhere to be found is a sign to distinguish this as the place where Chanel Miller was sexually assaulted by Stanford swimmer Brock Turner after a fraternity party in January 2015.

Without a sign, students in board shorts and bikinis sprawl from the fraternity lawn next door during weekend parties. Shirtless men play basketball at the court adjacent, and beer cans and Juul pods litter the nearby grounds.

“There being no marker here of what it was built to remember, it made me feel very uneasy,” Qian said. “Without context, it feels like you just paved over” what happened.

Unease turned into action Friday, when Qian and three other students unveiled “Dear Visitor,” a virtual exhibit that allowed people to see plaques with quotes from a statement Miller read in court to Turner, who served three months in jail. The project came in response to students clashing with university administrators, who rejected quotes Miller selected for a plaque at the garden.

“We had a unique tool to do something about it, so we did,” said Hope Schroeder, a May graduate who helped create “Dear Visitor.” “Stanford students are speaking out that we’re not going to forget.”

University officials said they suggested alternative quotes from Miller, including “I’m right here, I’m okay,” because the words she chose could be triggering for other sexual assault survivors. Miller instead decided to withdraw her involvement.

The event Friday was designed to be a guided experience with more than 100 attendees signed up, Schroeder said.

Visitors took turns using iPads to take the virtual tour. It opens with an account of what happened, before squares pop up on the screen with audio interviews from students discussing the space, the controversy and the issue of sexual violence. The plaques with Miller’s selected quotes also appear on the screen with her reading them.

Attendees could also write their own letters about the experience and upload them to the project’s website.

“It goes beyond what a physical plaque could do,” Schroeder said.

Critics of the university’s handling of the plaque have said Miller’s voice was being silenced and officials were taking her words out of context.

“This is what women are worth to @Stanford. The sexual assault victim’s words are discarded. The tenured professor standing up for her being branded crazy or worse and just ignored,” Michele Dauber, a tenured Stanford professor, wrote on Twitter. “If they aren’t putting her words on that plaque they should put back the dumpster.”

Dauber led a successful recall of Judge Aaron Persky after he sentenced Turner to six months in jail. Turner spent just half of that time behind bars.

In addition to Friday’s event, Miller’s memoir, “Know My Name,” was published Tuesday, bringing renewed attention to the incident and the issue of sexual assault on college campuses.

Students rallied Tuesday and hundreds signed a petition demanding that Stanford immediately install the plaque with the quote Miller initially selected. The petition also asks the school to apologize and acknowledge it did not uphold its original agreement to use Miller’s quotes on a plaque.

Schroeder said Stanford’s augmented reality club, 4 AR/VR, received a grant to convert and reimagine Confederate monuments in the South when they realized there was a controversial public space right in their own backyard that could serve as a test site.

The students felt that their technological capabilities allowed them to update the space to represent what the community wanted, even while the project stalled in administrative limbo.

“It seemed like we were the right people to try to do something like this,” Schroeder said.

Augmented reality is a relatively new concept, and it’s even rarer to create a project meant only for a static place. The AR group has no plans to publicly release the app beyond Friday’s event to ensure it remains a positive community experience, Schroeder said.

“People are drawn to this issue because it’s enraging,” she said. “There was a huge amount of student energy around this topic. And, luckily, people haven’t forgotten.”

Still, they’re concerned that without a plaque, students in future generations will continue to abuse the space or simply not know what it is.

Khoi Le, a senior who worked on the project, said he hopes Stanford will change its stance on the plaque. The group plans to compile letters written by visitors Friday and send them to the administration. The message is clear.

“Look at how important this is to the students now,” Le said. “How can we preserve that if there’s no plaque here?”


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