NCRM to Install ‘I Am A Man’ VR Experience

By Andy Meek

The back of a garbage truck looms, foreboding, in the foreground. The cluster of red lights gets larger as you walk tentatively toward it. In another moment, when you look down, your dark, worn hands come into view.

Were it not for the virtual reality headset you have to wear to immerse yourself in Derek Ham’s new “I Am A Man” VR experience – which will soon be installed at the National Civil Rights Museum – you could almost let your brain trick you into thinking you’re right there. That you are a sanitation worker in Memphis in 1968, that it’s all happening now, that you are standing in the shadows watching as a line of marchers passes by, wearing the placards on which they declared their rallying cry to the world.

The experience – and that’s really what the content is, less a “game” to play and more an “immersive documentary,” in Ham’s words – uses VR technology to drop you into several scenes stemming from the ’68 strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Derek Ham’s upcoming “I Am A Man” VR experience has been built for individual use with an Oculus Rift headset, but it also will soon be housed at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. It puts the user in the first-person perspective of a sanitation worker in Memphis in 1968. (Courtesy of Dr. Derek Ham)


Ham, an assistant professor of graphic design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, wanted to use VR as a vehicle for retelling familiar episodes from the civil rights movement in part because of the way the medium offers a first-person perspective that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

Ham’s “I Am A Man” experience won a 2017 Oculus Launch Pad Scholarship. It was one of more than a dozen to win that award, part of the Oculus Launch Pad competition that supports VR content creators from diverse backgrounds.

Oculus is the virtual reality company owned by social networking giant Facebook. Ham’s content is available to be downloaded and viewed by owners of the Oculus VR headset – “If you have an Oculus Rift, you can test it – it’s kind of in beta-testing now,” he said – and he’s hoping to have the full experience ready for use in April at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Ham got the idea for the project after buying an Oculus headset, looking at historical images from the civil rights movement and wondering what it was like to be there. Which makes his project almost a new kind of journalism, storytelling via images you can interact with, that are all around you.

You strap on a headset, and you’re standing outside the Lorraine Motel. Loud shots pierce the quietude of the day. One of the most resonant emotional touchstones for some users, Ham said, is to look down and see they have black hands – an image that, with just a flash of recognition, instantly conveys a world of meaning.

“It’s narrative-based, so you’ll be kind of living out different scenes related to a sanitation worker’s journey back in ’68,” Ham said. “I put you in certain contexts to make you really kind of develop some empathy with the character and empathy with the workers. So, for instance, I put you in the context of loading garbage on the back of a truck. Put you in the context of just kind of being in this humble kitchen. Of being in the street with the ‘I Am A Man’ signs.

“The most powerful thing for a lot of people who’ve beta-tested it already is the ethnic swapping that happens in virtual reality, when you look down and have the hands of a black man. For me, I’m African-American, it’s not a big deal. But if you’re not – there are moments like that that are real touching points, powerful moments of reflection for certain people who’ve either lived this or it’s part of their history. Or powerful moments of empathy, even.”

He’s still tweaking the content, trying to be finished and ready to have it installed at the museum by April. Because Oculus helped fund the project, he’s able to embed historical content into the experience. One of the things he’s been reviewing, for example, is actual CBS footage of Walter Cronkite announcing King’s death.

He’s been working with the civil rights museum on the historical accuracy and “flow” of the storytelling. It’s an outgrowth of his work and the classes he teaches in digital technology and immersive media.

He also wasn’t aware at first – but is nevertheless pleased – that his project would be arriving in tandem with the milestone anniversaries of the civil rights movement happening this year. Memphis, of course, just recognized the 50th anniversary of the death of two sanitation workers who were crushed to death in the back of their garbage truck in 1968. Likewise, this April marks the 50th anniversary of King’s death.

“VR is an interesting place, where if you’re, say, a 17- to 25-year-old who’s into technology and done a lot of VR, the pacing of this might be a little too slow for you,” Ham said. “But if you’re a VR novice – like, when I went into this project, I had my parents in mind. My parents are in their mid-60s. This is a first VR experience for them, and they’re just like, ‘Wow.’ They didn’t even do half of the features that are embedded in there.

“I’d put this in the category of an immersive documentary. It has the pacing of a documentary. I use real photos, real audio. But then I put you in these scenes to allow you to interact. To, as one person said, breathe the same air as the people you saw in the photos.”