Michelle Ferrier explores history using a 3-D virtual environment

How can 3-D environments enhance the storytelling of the African-American experience? Dr. Michelle Ferrier, associate professor in the School of Communications, explored this question Friday, Oct. 7 at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History conference in Richmond, Va.

The exterior gardens create a contemplative space where avatars can re-member famous African Americans.

“Reality Thrice Removed: Reimagining the Woolworth’s Sit-Ins in Second Life,” is a case study centered around the work of iMedia graduate students in the Spring 2010 Virtual Environments class. The course introduced students to Second Life, a 3-D virtual environment, and explored issues of identity, memory and place. Ferrier’s talk was part of a larger panel called “The Digital Future of African-American Studies.”

Graduate students Melissa Spencer and Maria Rojas, led by Ferrier and Dr. Tony Crider of the physics department, chose to explore the culture, conversations, and experience of the 1960 sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter and other civil rights events for virtual patrons. The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, the original site of the first sit-in movement, opened on February 1, 2010.

“The issue of identity was particularly challenging as we began the build in Second Life,” said Ferrier. “We wanted to recreate the experience of racial discrimination and not just create a static build that replicated the exhibits.”

The lunch counter virtual exhibit contains a script that allows visitors to experience racism.

As avatars, humans can select to represent their gender, age, ethnicity, outfit, accessories and facial expression. However, while in Second Life, their human identity is masked.

“So as we looked at how to create discrimination, we quickly realized that we couldn’t prejudice a particular group of avatars when we didn’t know their true identity,” Ferrier said.

The class re-imagined two actual exhibits: the actual Woolworth’s lunch counter and the museums “Hall of Shame.” At the lunch counter in the actual museum, visitors view a recreation of the lunch counter events.

“We embedded a video of interviews with the Greensboro Four,” said Ferrier, “but we also created an experience of discrimination.”

When avatars sit down at the virtual lunch counter, the waitress approaches the patron and uses racially charged language to tell the avatar that he or she is not welcome.

“We researched what the lunch counter workers actually said and created audio. We chose to use the ‘n-word’ because that’s what the Greensboro Four and others experienced,” Ferrier said.

The virtual Woolworth’s museum is situated within a larger space called the American Civil Rights Museum. The students chose to engulf the discrimination exhibits within a larger museum complex that celebrates the African-American experience.

The American Civil Rights Museum and Elon Island on which it was built no longer exist in Second Life, but information about the project can be found at http://syntheticrialiti.wordpress.com/.