Could augmented reality systems create space for people of colour in the film industry?

Emerging technology may be the answer to the ongoing question of representation.

Virtual Reality

Though their talents have long been exploited in the creation of stories for film, people of colour remain massively underrepresented in the industry. Recent years have certainly seen an increase in the diversity of mainstream film crews and casts, but, according to a study from the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, people of color still only account for 13.9 per cent of film leads in Hollywood.

Virtual reality’s potential role in film could change the way producers and directors of colour tell their stories, and the advent of VR and other emerging tech offers opportunities to correct the imbalance and flood the medium with black stories.

At this point in its development, though, what the medium of VR needs most urgently is content. It’s costly and complicated, but because the technology is still in its infancy, there is ample space for people of colour to take the reigns as actors, director, producers and writers.

“We talk about the black renaissance that’s occurring in traditional entertainment,” Jake Sally, director of tech-driven motion-picture studio RYOT, tells Current. “We can avoid an ebb and flow if we just start seeding black voices in the beginning in virtual reality.”

Referred to by some as the empathy machine for its ability to put the user in another's shoes, VR also has the potential to help us unlearn many of our deeply held biases. At the recent BPM Story Summit  organised by nonprofit Black Public Media and held at Google’s New York City offices, creators of colour unveiled some of the VR projects they’ve been working on and demonstrated their impact.

Dinner Party

Produced by RYOT in conjunction with Skybound Entertainment and Telexist, Dinner Party was just one of the examples presented. Following an interracial couple in 1961 as they experience the first reported UFO abduction, it was screened alongside other VR films, including Bashir’s Dream and Zero Days, both of which focus on the experiences of Middle Eastern subjects.

The ongoing NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism project from studio Hyphen-Labs also screened their short VR film, which is set in a futuristic hair salon, at the summit. Having begun their exploration into how art and tech can combat inequalities a number of years ago, the Hyphen-Labs team's latest project literally places users in the position of a black woman having her hair done at a salon.

Led by Creative Director Ashley Baccus-Clark, her background in molecular biology and marketing has allowed Hyphen-Labs to effectively integrate real-world data into their large-scale, speculative projects. With NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, they sought to contextualise the experience of multiple intersecting identities while being careful to not commodify it.

Virtual Reality

“We want to increase visibility of WOC inside of virtual reality and emerging technology from its inception,” Baccus-Clark explained in a recent interview with Vice. “Our goal is to figure out how our minds work, how storytelling can control culture and who gets to talk about the future.”

BPM Executive Director Leslie Fields-Cruz is also looking to bolster the pipeline for black content by including VR and augmented-reality projects in the next call for submissions to its annual 360 Incubator. Even if the success of black led films like Black Panther doesn't appear to be speeding up the mainstream film industry’s progress when it comes to black content, emerging tech may offer another space for these creators to flourish.

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