On the holiday celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it’s time to look at the award-winning “I am a Man” VR experience. Set during the African-American Civil Rights Movement, it takes you through a series of interactive events during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. As some of the participants in the strike are still alive, it includes voice narration from the participants. Ultimately, it leads up to the tragic assassination of Dr. King.
The VR experience is an excellent example of using virtual reality to recreate a historical event. And it confronts the challenges of doing a project that ends with a horrifically violent act. This is vastly different than using VR to explore Ancient Rome. It cuts close to home with an event that many of us lived through. And it remains a fundamental issue of our time.
From the “I am a Man” VR experience website,
The vision is to give people an experience of history in a way that provides a more personal understanding of the struggles of these marginalized people. The VR experience allows one to literally walk in the shoes of people who fought for freedom and equality during the civil rights era. Most importantly, this project gives users a deeper awareness of their struggle. Using historical film and photographs, along with voice narrations of actual Civil Rights participants, the project falls along the lines of a new type of interactive-documentary experience. I Am A Man VR experience looks to help usher in this rich new way of experiencing history.
Developing the I am a Man VR experience
There’s an excellent interview with the creator of “I am a Man,” Derek Ham, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at North Carolina State University. You’re placed in the body of one of the protesters and move through a series of interactive vignettes leading to the last moments of Dr. King’s life. That it ended in violence is central to the event, but it’s challenging to strike the appropriate balance.
The “I am a Man” VR experience was one of 14 VR projects selected for the Oculus Launch Pad scholarship project in 2017. The project was designed to be installed at the former Lorraine Hotel, the site of Dr. King’s assignation in April 1968 and now the location of the National Civil Rights Museum. It’s not at the Museum now, but Derek Ham continues to tour the experience at VR expos and game festivals. At the 2018 Future of Storytelling (FoST) festival in New York, it won the FoST Prize in the Bridging the Divide.
The experience is available for free on the Oculus Store for a number of VR headsets. Here’s the promo video.
“I am a Man” is a compelling VR experience. We’ll continue to follow the work of Derek Ham and others working to bring history to life through virtual reality.
Emory Craig is a writer, speaker, and VR consultant with extensive experience in art, new media, and higher education. He speaks at global conferences on innovation, education, and ethical technology in the future. He has published widely and worked with the US Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Living at the intersection of learning, games, and immersive storytelling, he is fascinated by AI-based avatars, digital twins, and the ethical implications of blurring the boundaries between the real and the virtual.