Can virtual reality save young Black people from a deadly reality? Palmer Luckey hopes so.

Residents of Ferguson, MO., who have been protesting the killing of teenager Mike Brown by a police officer Darren Wilson for almost two weeks, have a new and unlikely ally: Palmer Luckey.*

Ferguson, Mo. residents protesting the police shooting of unarmed Mike Brown. - courtesy of NBC News
Ferguson, Mo. residents protesting the police shooting of unarmed Mike Brown. – courtesy of NBC News

The 21 year-old inventor of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset is offering to outfit the Ferguson police department with special versions of the crowd funded device. White police officers can wear the headsets as they go about their policing business, but instead of seeing the people around them as they are, they will see and hear old white people.

According to a statement released by Oculus Rift, which was bought by Facebook in March for $2 billion,  making white police officers see elderly white people, “is intended to intercede on what many blame for the ongoing killing of young Black men by the police in the United States: implicit and explicit racial bias.”

Palmer Luckey, the creator of the Oculus Rift virtual reality gaming headset, at his workshop in Irvine, Calif.- courtesy of the Dallas Morning News.
Palmer Luckey, the creator of the Oculus Rift virtual reality gaming headset, at his workshop in Irvine, Calif.- courtesy of the Dallas Morning News.

The statement continued, “According to recent research in race perceptions and bias, elderly white people trigger the least amount of bias in younger white police officers– the intended users of the headsets. By removing the trigger of bias and the accompanied perceived threat, the headset creates a situation where police officers can respond to actual circumstances, such as assessing whether a suspect is actually carrying a weapon and/or behaving in a threatening manor.”

The headsets offered to the Ferguson police department will serve the dual function of recording all police interactions and answering the call by some for police to wear body cameras. Guaranteed video evidence will inhibit police department’s ability to spin incidents of police involved shootings, as many claim happened in the case of Mike Brown.

Journalists and artists are already using virtual reality headsets and motion capture technology to blur the boundaries of virtual reality and lived reality in order to place audiences in stories and in some cases shift perspectives.

Earlier this year journalist Nonny de la Peña premiered an immersive documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival entitled Use of Forcewhich allowed participants to stand shoulder to shoulder with other witnesses when the U.S. Border Patrol beat to death Mexican migrant Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, in 2010. Peña’s team built its own virtual reality rig for the documentary.

BeAnotherLab, an interdisciplinary group of students at the University Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, hacked the Oculus Rift allowing participants to inhabit the bodies of people with a gender different from their own.  Phillippe Betrand, the group’s founder said there is a lot of potential for this type of experimentation,  “… recent investigations on embodied simulation are reporting a blurriness of the self related to familiar individuals. Other studies suggest the effectiveness of embodiment for reducing implicit racial bias.”

Julie Daniels, a spokesperson for Oculus Rift, acknowledged that the headsets offered to the Ferguson police department is just a stopgap measure to intercede on bias as it happens. “Replacing young black men with elderly white people will not shift bias long term, but it could save some lives today.”

“In the long term, we could easily combine VR technology and wearable tech such as the Heart Math Sensor and AiQ Smart Clothing in police training programs. Such combined tech could help identify deadly implicit racial bias and perceived threats and create protocols for shifting the bias in real world scenarios,” she continued.

When asked why Palmer Luckey was wading into the racially charged waters of Ferguson, Mo. Daniels said, “Who is to say that Mike Brown wouldn’t have designed the next Oculus Rift, or found the cure for cancer, or simply contributed to his community in a caring and loving way? As long as there is a system that allows for implicit racial bias to have such deadly consequences, we will all suffer the losses and be forced to ask ourselves what if.”

The Ferguson Police department did not respond to requests for comments and have not publicly responded to the Luckey’s offer.


*This is article is not true. I wrote it to explore the possible applications of emerging technology in ending racism in this country. I used techniques from Science Fiction Prototyping by Brian David Johnson to develop it. 

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