One mission of the Neuse Regional Libraries is to provide new and exciting technologies to the community. One of the latest pieces of technology we have available for the public is the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Virtual reality is becoming more and more popular as an immersive technology, and it gives us the opportunity to provide unique learning experiences for our library users. For the month of February, we’re showcasing Traveling While Black, an interactive documentary discussing travel in the mid-20th century featured entirely in virtual reality.
The virtual experience takes place at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a famous landmark restaurant located in Washington D.C. The building has a rich history of its own as it was once the first African American silent movie theater, the Minnehaha, which opened in 1910. Later the location was converted into a pool hall by Harry Beckley, one of Washington D.C.’s first black police detectives. Kamal Ben Ali along with his then fiancee Virginia renovated and opened the restaurant on August 22, 1958. The restaurant has survived trying times such as the race riots of 1968, as well as community hardship throughout the 70’s and 80’s.
As the video begins, you are seated across from Virginia Ali herself as she describes the history of her restaurant and how important it is to the community. As she’s talking, you are able to physically move your head around and observe the patrons and the environment around you. As you move from scene to scene the video uses very slow and deliberate transitions to help people who may have issues with motion sickness while in VR.
Since the documentary takes place in VR, the creators have taken the opportunity to use subtle and interesting methods of storytelling. For example, one scene features a patron talking about traveling as a young man from Georgia to Mississippi. As he’s speaking, the mirror at the restaurant booth becomes a bus window casting the reflection of the young man staring out into the passing green fields off in the distance.
Unfortunately, the stories of racial discrimination are not exclusive to traveling. The documentary highlights the murder of 12 year old Tamir Rice as told by his mother Samaria Rice. The participant is seated across from Samaria as she recounts the events of that tragic day while patrons and staff of the restaurant all face in your direction. The experience exemplifies the unique opportunities afforded by virtual reality and how its ability to immerse the viewer into a new experience can help increase their awareness of our world and its history.
Traveling While Black is one of many of the VR experiences we are making available for our library patrons to try for themselves. If you have any questions or would like to schedule a session, please call 252-527-7066 Ext. 134.