U Of I Students Use Virtual Reality To Heal Tensions Between Police, Marginalized Communities
A group of University of Illinois students hope to mend relations between police and marginalized communities through the use of virtual reality technology. The students are part of a start-up, called YouMatter Studios, that receive funding and other support from the Gies School of Business’ iVenture Accelerator program.
Jewel Iefeguni, a senior at the U of I and one of the co-producers of the film, said she was inspired to create it after hearing of the arrest and death of Sandra Bland. Bland, a black woman, was arrested in Texas in 2015 after she refused to put out her cigarette during a traffic stop. Bland was found hanging in her jail cell several days later.
“And that really hit home because that was an African-American woman. And that could have easily been me,” Iefeguni said. “So, I just really wanted to figure out how could I explain a taste of the black experience using (virtual reality).”
The film, called “The Drive,” reenacts a traffic stop and places the viewer in the shoes of a young black man, his mother and a young police officer. Each screening will be followed by a facilitated workshop.
Adia Ivey, another U of I senior and co-producer of the film, said after the screenings, “we’re hoping that having that empathetic experience we’re able to have a more constructive dialogue about what’s still currently happening and needs to be addressed.”
Iefeguni said using virtual reality as the vehicle for that discussion was a no-brainer. She said such an immersive technology has the power to effect positive social change.
“We're building all this cool technology, but we're building for the elite,” Iefeguni said. “We're not focusing on issues that can apply to everyone, and I was just like how can we not use (virtual reality) to start these conversations when there's just so much potential.”
Ivey said “The Drive” is the first big project for YouMatter Studios, but they hope to continue their work after that wraps up. She said the studio’s goal is to highlight marginalized voices.
“Overally, we want our videos to be about constructive dialogues and conversation — not necessarily debate,” she said. “We want to be a platform for other people who might be underrepresented in media to collaborate with us be able to push out their stories.”
The group plans to release the virtual reality film sometime in March. They said multiple screenings and workshops will be held over the course of the university's spring semester.