by Marcus Harrison Green
If the prospect of escaping to an alternate reality seems ever so enticing given local and world affairs as of late, departures take place this Sunday in South Seattle.
Any one will be able to roam Ireland’s sheep stocked rolling hills, gawk at Tokyo’s neon-lit skyscrapers, and deflect laser blasts with a light saber in a galaxy far, far away without ever stepping foot outside the Othello neighborhood’s New Holly Gathering Hall.
The “Virtual Reality Pop-Up”, which allows people to test out virtual and augmented reality devices, comes courtesy of collaboration between Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), University of Washington CoMotion Labs, City of Seattle Office of Economic Development and Office of Film + Music.
The first of its kind event is part of the collaborative’s effort to make virtual reality accessible to populations in the city that have previously felt excluded from both the burgeoning technology, and the rest of the city’s love affair with the precipitously expanding tech industry.
That aim of exposing the city’s marginalized populations and communities of color to the new technology was the catalyst for bringing the co-organizers of the event together. This made their decision to host what will be the first of six such events around the city in South Seattle’s Othello Neighborhood deliberate.
“It was with absolute intention that we did our very first one in Othello. All people involved in the pop-up had the same thinking. As the VR industry starts to develop we don’t want it to look like the film industry. We really want to get this right and make sure they have awareness and professionals,” says Kate Becker during a conference call about the event, the director of the City’s Office of Film+ Music.
Becker added all involved parties hope Seattle’s local Virtual Reality industry can avoid the rest of the tech industry’s well–documented diversity problems. Becker joins other organizers in hoping the event can serve as an information exchange of shorts, introducing newcomers to the technology, while also breaking up the geographic monopoly on tech events convening mostly in and around South Lake Union and Pioneer Square.
“South Seattle has been a target of mine in connecting people to jobs in this region. It’s really a question of where do we want to concentrate our technology,” says David Harris, head of the Start Up Seattle program inside the city’s office of Economic Development, which supports tech business development.
Harris, who was also on the conference call, says he hopes the tech professionals who will be in attendance including representatives from tech titans Facebook and Google, will see South Seattle as untended, but fertile soil for tech based events and organizations.
“Instead of using a venue downtown, the next time a tech company does a workshop they can consider having it in South Seattle knowing that there’s a demand for it there,” Harris says.
The event’s organizers are optimistic that demand will be boosted after attendees get their hands on the virtually reality glasses and headsets including HoloLens, Vives, Oculus, Google Cardboard, Theta S, and 360Fly.
While the tech savvy might salivate at the mention of those VR devices, newcomers to virtual reality should be fearless when it comes to strapping on a headset according to Alex Rose also of the Office of Music + Film.
“I think a lot of this technology is meant to be intuitive to how people are experiencing their environment already. In my experiences there aren’t that many barriers to how you access to these technologies,” says Rose.
She adds that there will be several VR experts on hand to aide attendees of all skill levels in using the equipment.
Harris, who is a self described tech nerd of the highest order, says that he is actually a novice when it comes to VR technology, however, he sees it soon becoming a new normal in everyday life.
“This is the future. This is how people are going to interact with technology. All these technologies used to be taboo, and really expensive. But on Sunday people will get to see how they’re daily lives will be affected by it,” he says.
A part of that future includes immersive storytelling viscerally planting an individual smack bang in middle of scenario they might otherwise never experience.
Harris describes a VR film he watched on homelessness as layering his senses with the plight of society’s less fortunate.
“I was able to see and hear, what was going on and really be there. It put me in an entirely different mindset,” says the business start up advocate.
And while the medium’s ability to transmit empathy is something Harris says can be used as an educational tool to potentially shift attitudes on an array of issues across an ever-polarized country, there is a degree of caution around utilizing the technology according to Becker.
“As an empathy tool, it has a tremendous potential to sensitize humanity. But like any technology it could have a darkside,” she says, alluding to simulated war scenarios conducted by the military.
However, Sunday will focus on virtual reality’s benefits including providing those either physically or financially unable to experience foreign travel with the opportunity to marvel at ancient architecture while they walk around the Roman coliseum.
There will also be representatives from the VR departments of an array of local tech companies to discuss breaking into the industry.
Sunday’s event will be the first of six happening around the city in the next 3 months, with successive events happening in Africatown, International District, West Seattle, North Seattle, and the University District.
The Virtual Reality Pop-Up will take place Sunday, May 7th from 3 to 6pm at the New Holly Gathering Hall (7054 32nd Avenue South, Seattle WA 98118). The event is free.
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, the current scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000
Featured image is a Wiki Commons photo