Low Barrier, High Quality: Welcome to Public Interest Virtual Reality

Each morning when Kathy Bisbee awakens, she heads immediately to her garden. Filled with child-like wonder, she hastens into the morning light to check on the status of her dahlias. “I’m like a little kid; I run out to see what’s blooming.” 

Although what she finds isn’t always beautiful, those times when the flowers are in full bloom are the most rewarding. 

Bisbee views this morning routine as a metaphor for her work in the field of XR. The founder of the Public VR Lab and co-director of the Brookline Interactive Group (BIG) is committed to bridging the gap often found between digital media tools and everyday citizens. She can’t foresee the bloom of any particular day, but remains excited about prospects to come.

“I’m motivated by access,” she said. “I ask: Who has it? Who doesn’t? How can I help communities and individuals find the resources they need to access networks, education, technology, information and content creation tools?”

Though media-based technologies weren’t part of Bisbee’s upbringing, helping others was. “I grew up with financial insecurity, and spent much of my life trying not to live with the constant fear of scarcity and economic crisis,” she explained, looking back on her childhood in Temple, Maine. “It’s beautiful, but it can be a challenging place to grow up.”

Bisbee recalls western Maine as a place filled with “hard-working, blue-collar, independent thinkers with family values and an interest in taking care of others.” Though encouraged by teachers, church members, and neighbors who recognized her worldly curiosity and sought to provide support and opportunities, her parents were the most influential in her life.

“Although we lived with economic insecurity, my parents made sure to give me a strong sense of who I am and how I can help grow the potential of community and individuals,” she remembered. “They taught me to give others the dignity they deserve; to give what you can, what you have. That’s been a foundational gift I draw from every day in my work.”

Created in 2015, the Public VR Lab is “a collaborative effort to facilitate public dialogue around new VR related technologies and support the community creation of 360 virtual and augmented content.” It’s the first publicly accessible XR content creation lab and training center in the U.S. and offers programs and professional training to youths and adults in Brookline, Massachusetts, and beyond. Participants in the Lab’s programs have access to XR filmmaking equipment, educational workshops, production grants, fellowships, hackathons, and more. 

“We collaborate with local businesses, city governments, arts organizations and schools to provide opportunities to explore these new technologies,” Bisbee boasts. “We also have training courses and curriculum so our programs can be replicated across the country.”

One avenue for exploration is their VR Toolkits, which can be shipped directly to customers and contains everything an organization needs to implement VR in their daily operations. To date, Lab collaborators have included the STAT news team at the Boston Globe, the United Nations Environmental Programme, the Alliance for Community Media, and the MIT Open Documentary Lab, where Bisbee is a research fellow. A partnership with Discovery Education is currently in the works.

While the Lab is relatively new, Bisbee’s start in community advocacy began decades ago in 1992: “Right out of college, I was a community organizer on environmental justice issues. I segued into teaching technology and developing accessible internet programs, and moved into developing community story-based technology tools at a startup in Silicon Valley.”

Having directed two community media centers previously in central California for the past five years, she has served as BIG’s Executive Director. “BIG has been around for 35 years and, in our community, is known as the community television and media arts education center that helps to provide access to media tools.”

Led by Bisbee, the impact of the media center has garnered national notice. In 2017, BIG received the award for the top public access channel in the US. This year, Bisbee was awarded the 2019 Nextant Legacy Award by Tom Furness—the grandfather of AR/VR—and the Virtual World Society (VWS) during the Augmented World Expo. The award honors living inspirations who show ways to better the world through XR.

“[VWS] and so many others have provided opportunities to share our work and build a Community XR network that expands our media center’s mission. The only way we can do what we do is to collaborate and partner with like-minded others.”

Boston surrounds Brookline, located in Norfolk County, Maine, which is considered part of greater Boston. Given its proximity, issues that plague the city—like the tumultuous racial history—are essential to consider when analyzing BIG’s provision of digital tools to marginalized groups. Bisbee, whose life and career has been spent overcoming adversity, admits that “there are a lot of other obstacles for people of color that I didn’t have to face.”

Before community media centers like BIG, members of underrepresented groups weren’t always able to share their perspectives and experiences in an impactful way through local media. “In the context of our work, black communities in Boston have been and are historically, disproportionately, being left behind.”

In 2017, the Boston Globe sought to answer the following question in a seven-part series: “Does Boston still deserve its reputation as a place unwelcoming to blacks?” Findings included that the average median net worth of Black Bostonians is $8 compared to white counterparts whose average median income is $240,000+. 

“Coming back in 2014 after 24 years in California,” where she obtained her MA in Integrated Marketing Communications and Public Relations from Golden Gate University in San Francisco, “was an eye-opener for me. We’d been talking about racism for decades. When I got here, I was surprised to find out, frankly, how segregated and racist Boston was.”

The year the study was released, Bisbee earned acceptance into Lead Boston—a YWCA program focused on equity and inclusion work. “The 2017 class was the most diverse yet, with many classmates doing work in non-profits, so there were rich conversations throughout the entire year about race and inclusion.” 

Since then, she’s noticed some change. “Many leaders and organizations in the city have been working hard the last couple of years to create equity, call out past behaviors, and build a better reality for all in Boston.”

In general, Bisbee finds that VR can lessen tensions felt when the time comes for difficult conversations about race, politics, and other societal issues. “VR offers a way for communities to have an experience of the ‘other’ and themselves, creating a form of empathy. We hope to help communities facilitate less polarized dialogue.”

The Public VR Lab’s “Arrival VR” project is doing just that, opening doors for tough conversations around immigration. An initiative funded by the Brookline Community Foundation, it consists of curated immigration/migration stories of Americans from 1620-2019 compiled into a visual XR/VR immersive timeline.

“This project comes at a critical moment in US history, serving as a reminder that most ‘Americans’—including our President—came here as immigrants, were forced to migrate here, or were here before. My hope is we see barriers some groups have faced, and enter into a conversation about that history and our present situation.” 

Former Democratic presidential candidate and Brookline resident, Michael Dukakis, interviewed for the Arrival VR project. “He said to us, ‘immigrants are what makes this country great.’ I agree, and if we’re going to have a fighting chance to protect our democracy, we have to work together and talk about change more respectfully. We need to hold a mirror up to America and say to people: ‘your story is important.”

Beyond combatting consequences of racial inequality or political vitriol on the national stage, BIG’s impact is evident on small scales as many program participants go on to attend prominent universities in the Boston area, including MIT, Emerson, and Boston University. “We’ve also had staff and students end up in Hollywood working on major films and productions in the region. Many come here to build their resumes, learn new skills, or retool their old skills.”

Despite its good works, BIG is battling an entity that threatens its future, and the future of all community media centers nationwide. “Throughout my 11 years in community media, we’ve been fighting for our long-term survival. We’ve reinvented ourselves in new media while staying true to the core idea that local communities have a right to chargeback the cable companies for their commercial use of our public-right-away.”

That public-right-away came directly under attack when, on August 1, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed an order undermining the Communication Act of 1984, which promotes competition and deregulation of cable television. Without this to repeal funding for community television centers like BIG, corporate entities gain access to public right-of-ways without being required to compensate local municipalities and citizens fully.

“The Alliance for Community Media and other media-centers around the country are our brothers and sisters in this fight to protect the free and low-cost resources of public access. Collectively, we serve thousands of residents through our programs.” Without this protection and federally mandated funding, she doesn’t doubt a new form of democracy will emerge at the local level. 

“Community media fosters a free speech,” Bisbee notes, “and engagement around local voices unavailable elsewhere.” Yet, she remains hopeful. “I love the long-term promise of our work,” she shares, musing over a song by Utah Phillips, a union folk singer. “He sings, ‘We’re building a ship, might never sail it.’ It’s important to remember that we’re doing something that matters even if no one is watching—if it’s yet to be done and we never get to see it set sail. We do the work because we know it matters.”

As with any new tool, there are benefits and risks to further implementing VR into our daily lives. Bisbee suggests that ensuring the focus remains on people over profit is the key to the ethical management of VR tools. “It’s important to have economic development and commercial interest, but equally important to have a strong focus on the public good as we’re moving forward,” Bisbee explains. “This world is dominated by corporate interests and products already.”

Content with providing access to storytellers, addressing the needs of the Brookline community, and solidifying BIG’s role in fostering the art of the possible in using XR to enhance the human experience,—focusing on people is what she’ll continue doing.

“The best stories in any format make us feel something—connection, inspiration, anticipation, joy, sadness, hope, understanding. I think our world is really in need of good stories, the co-created stories of humanity, engagement, and authenticity. Because of the kind of medium it is, VR can create that. It’s an honor to be able to show people the potential of this technology and help them find and create their story and their community’s stories inside of it.”

About

Kara Henderson is a freelance writer and current student at the University of Texas at Austin studying visual journalism. Having received her bachelors from the University of Pittsburgh in Interdisciplinary Studies: Multi-Media Broadcasting, Business and Music, it is her hope to encourage, empower and inspire through her written and visual works.