Women of Color Are Using VR to Imagine a More Inclusive World

Increasingly, virtual reality is being used as a therapeutic tool. The women behind NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism want to use it to center black women's experiences—and imagine a better future.

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Jun 12 2017, 5:42pm

Slipping on a virtual reality visor as I sat in a chair, I was transported from a library in Chicago to a futuristic hair salon. Looking up, I saw my reflection in a salon mirror: a virtual black woman with hair styled in two Afro puffs. I felt momentarily disoriented because I actually was wearing my hair up in two puffs that day, but I'd placed them up and down on my head, rather than the side-by-side poofs reflecting back at me.

When I looked down, I saw small, digitized thighs sitting in skinny jeans; I looked up, and saw a futuristic chandelier gently swaying on the ceiling above my head. I was in another place, inhabiting a body that felt new and familiar all at once.

Read more: Real Life Is Not Enough: On Choosing Virtual Reality Over the Physical World

Virtual reality is usually associated with video game play—meaning that most people who experience it have the means and desire to buy expensive headsets for recreational use. But researchers are starting to explore the medium's potential as a therapeutic tool; already, VR is being used to treat survivors of sexual assault and veterans suffering from PTSD. NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, a futuristic art and technology project by the Hyphen-Labs collective, wants to use this capability in a new, groundbreaking way: to create an empathetic, digital environment centering black female experience. Hyphen-Labs consists of Ashley Baccus-Clark, Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, and Ece Tankal.

Ashley Baccus-Clark, the project's director, says she and her colleague Carmen Aguilar y Wedge came up with the idea while pondering ways to counteract the lack of empathy involved when police shoot and kill black people. She cited one study as a particularly notable source of inspiration: In 2013, a group of researchers led by Mel Slater found evidence that white people who navigated a virtual reality simulation in a black body had lower scores on a test of racial bias after the experience.
Photo courtesy of Hyphen-Labs

"If a person sees themselves in a black body or encountering a black avatar, they have to engage them in a way that humanizes that avatar or themselves," Baccus-Clark said. "[Maybe] that could somehow change… the sort of empathy that they feel toward black people in their everyday life." Narratives of police brutality and other types of discrimination often exclude black women, she added, so she and her collaborators thus wanted to center this perspective as a means of imagining a more inclusive future.

In addition to the VR experience, Baccus-Clark's team has also developed several prototypes of Afrofuturism-inspired products to protect or aid the bodies of black women and other women of color. The installation featured product descriptions and even some physical products, laid out on a table for visitors to touch and handle: earrings that record police encounters, a scarf that evades facial recognition technology (which could be useful to fight surveillance at protests), and sunscreen that goes on dark skin without leaving a white cast. Images of the products also showed up in the VR experience, so one could experience them both physically and virtually.

"We're playing with possible worlds that could and should exist, looking from the product perspective [and] looking from the virtual perspective," said Aguilar y Wedge.

As someone who has worked in neuroscience labs, I was most excited about one particular product featured in the installation and in the VR experience: the Octavia Electrodes, which bear the name of the venerable science fiction writer Octavia Butler. They're modeled after the current small electrodes that can be placed on a person's scalp to either read brain activity or provide brain stimulation. Since I've placed these on others while running neuroscience experiments, I know that they aren't exactly easy to put on people with Afro-textured curly, kinky hair.

Photo courtesy of Hyphen-Labs

As a coda to this unfortunate reality, the main part of the VR experience involves sitting in a "neurocosmetology lab," or hair salon, where the Octavia Electrodes are woven directly into braided hair extensions. This side-steps the issue, and allows black women to reap the potential benefits of brain stimulation in addition to getting a new hairstyle.

Lack of inclusivity in design isn't just a problem with electrodes—technology is full of examples of issues like this. Automatic hand-detecting faucets don't always pick up dark skin tones, for instance, showing that most products aren't made with people of color in mind. Another particularly egregious example of this is the creation of color photography, which was developed with only white skin tones as a guide.

Discrimination is often an implicit—and unexamined—part of the way designers approach their work, according to Anna Lauren Hoffmann, an incoming assistant professor at the University of Washington Information School who studies how technology and design can help or hinder marginalized groups. Product design often divides a potential user base into two camps: "normal cases and edge cases," she said. The problem is that this way of picturing things isn't a true reflection of reality; instead of being useful, it can magnify technology's failure to serve marginalized people. "This bothers me to no end," Hoffmann said. "People with dark skin are not edge cases! [But] because of the way designers are approaching the problem, they are constructing these groups as edge cases."

One of the goals of NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism is to inspire product designers to start thinking outside of their own experiences; another, more important, aim is to work toward a world in which more women of color are actually in the designer's seat.

The vision required to develop a product like the Octavia Electrodes can only come from the first-hand experience of having to make do with existing, exclusionary products. "No one else is really qualified to make these things," said Datrianna Meeks, a senior product designer at Spotify. "The people who would best understand that are the people who are making it, which is black women. So if we're not investing in them, then we're not investing in the people who I think are the best poised to work on these things."

However, the women behind the project are aware of the other forces at play in getting something from conception to market: Since women of color usually find themselves pitching to white, male investors, getting the green light to produce doesn't come easily, and if a product is tailor-made for black people, some investors may turn cold. But the market for products that cater to black women isn't small, Meeks said: "The potential for revenue and profit is still just as great if [it's] a great product."

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Big tech companies or investors may think that products and technology like those featured in NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminsim don't have a great return on investment, but Hyphen-Labs wants to inspire other companies and designers to make similar moves. In addition, they plan to explore alternative funding sources that are beyond traditional investors, like crowd funding.

"We've gotten enough response from our community and the online community about the necessity and the want for these products," said Aguilar y Wedge. "So I think that's who we should be listening to."