MLK in 3D: Exploring the legacy of the “Dream” language in VR

MArtin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech is all too often reduced to this one symbolic phrase: a vague wish for a distant, racism-free future. In reality, King’s speech, like many of his speeches, was sharp and haunting, dealing not with dreams but with cold, hard realities about America.

Two new projects from TIME Studios, released Thursday, January 12, allow users to explore the relevance and power of King’s “dream” speech sixty years later through virtual reality. The first project, The March 360, allows viewers to watch King’s speech as if they were standing on the National Mall in Washington DC. The second, an interactive experience called “MLK: Now Is The Time,” explores some of King’s issues showing how the same injustices he railed against still oppress BIPOC people in America. Overall, experience suggests that King’s famous speech is not just a series of vague platitudes or a eulogy of a racist American past, but a series of unresolved grievances that have only gained relevance.

As a user, I was both impressed and frustrated by the experiences: I found them to be thematically and viscerally powerful at times, but was also distracted by the eerie valley visuals – the eerie feeling that I was seeing avatars very close to people, but not quite the real thing.

Both experiences are accessed through Meta Quest headsets. The first, MLK: Now Is The Time, is available to download from the Oculus Quest Store. It’s an interactive experience that uses King’s words as entry points into conversations about how racist housing, electoral and policing policies have perpetuated the country’s racial inequalities. While reading about voter suppression is one thing, trying to snag a ballot that’s floating out of reach or playing Monopoly with the deck stacked against you is another – both are elements of the interactive experience.

Limbert Fabian, the project’s leader, preferred to draw not primarily from the more famous second half of King’s speech about his “dream” but from the more damning first half, which describes the many specific systemic injustices faced by African Americans . “MLK was upset and he told us, ‘We should be upset. We have to do better and do better,'” Fabian tells TIME. “I thought there was potential to take the part that comes across as a little bit angry and demanding and make that tangible.”

Continue reading: Don’t forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was once denounced as an extremist

The most harrowing part of the experience is putting you in a car after being pulled over by a police officer. The passage draws on King’s condemnation of police brutality: “Some of you come from areas where your quest for freedom has swept through the storms of persecution and rocked by the winds of police brutality,” he said in the speech. “You were the veterans of creative suffering.”

In the VR experience, you sit in the dark as the red police light flashes menacingly on your windshield, prompting you to keep your hands on the wheel. But if you move your actual hands from that position, you’ll be immediately swarmed by cops shining flashlights in your eyes, grabbing guns from their belts, and screaming in what appears to be something you’re reaching for. “I wanted to take the audience to a place where they get a sense of what it feels like to be in that moment,” says Fabian. “I wanted to make it a very internal thing that looks outward.”

A screenshot from the MLK: Now Is the Time VR experience

Courtesy Meta

The second experience, The March 360, is an adaptation of the interactive experience and museum exhibit that debuted in Chicago two years ago. You can access them by searching for them in the Quest TV app, and they also appear regularly on Horizon Venues, the live events wing of Meta’s social media metaverse platform Horizon Worlds. The experience transports you to Washington DC on August 28, 1963 and transports you to various vantage points in the crowd of 250,000.

“When you look at these stories, they’re more powerful … because you’re actually experiencing them instead of reading about them,” Alton Glass, who co-created The March with TIME’s Mia Tramz, told TIME in 2020.

Continue reading: How TIME recreated the 1963 March on Washington in virtual reality

However, I personally found this experience less effective than MLK: Now Is The Time. While painstakingly outfitted with period clothing and body language, hundreds of protesters looked and moved like extras, their arms hovering over their bellies. King’s facsimile looked impressively photographic from a number of angles. From others, however, he looked like a character in a video game: his eyes twinkled, his forehead shone, and his speech was slightly out of sync with his mouth. The small discrepancies removed me from the reality of the historical event instead of delving deeper into it.

While I didn’t find watching the speech in this VR recreation any better than simply viewing the speech’s grainy footage on YouTube, it still offers a technologically innovative way to generate widespread interest in a pivotal historical moment, and could be a good one its way to arouse the curiosity of a new generation. Fabian says he hopes “MLK: Now Is the Time” will be used in classrooms and that it will help establish a direct link between King – often defined simply for his pacifism – and Black Lives Matter, which is often seen as radical was denounced.

“I really don’t want this to be a substitute for activism, but maybe it could be a taste of how you can get involved if you’re interested in this conversation,” he says. “Hopefully we’re raising awareness that the people on the front lines who are getting involved and trying to make change happen for all of us, benefit from the thoughtful and intelligent approach of someone like Dr. King.”

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