The Hidden in Plain Site VR experience uncovers local stories

Watch for a deeper look at the presentation of the Black American offspring’s voices VPM news focus Point Thursday at 8:00 p.m.

J. Dontrese Brown, founder of marketing agency BROWNBAYLOR, considers himself a history buff. But his passion for history is new, rooted in a need to learn more about his own past and a desire to ensure his legacy influences how history is told in the future.

Hidden in Plain Site is a web-based platform that educates the public through a narrative of visual interpretation – from historical photos to their current place in the world. The partnership, created by Brown, Dean Browell and David Waltenbaugh, is focused on using virtual reality to put users in the shoes of others and transform their relationship to the stories around them.

“What we do is we collect stock images and then use virtual reality, film and video and technology to orient a person to where they are,” Brown said, “and then to that point where they are to transfer history to a historical point.”

Following the 2020 killing of George Floyd, Brown said they wanted to contribute to a social justice narrative from a different perspective.

“I realized [that] There are a lot of stories here in the city of Richmond that aren’t being told by the culture that needs to be told,” Brown said. “So we focused on raising those voices as we started figuring out what we wanted to do. When we started doing that, we realized how important that is for any historically underrepresented group.”

HiPS is available now in Richmond. Attempts are also being made to make the experience available in Roanoke.

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In Roanoke, Brown said, HiPS plans to focus on places important to the black experience, including a black neighborhood that “they completely destroyed” to build a civic center and the Dreamland recreation center, which is the only one Black American Recreation Center was in it’s time. According to Brown, “We’re going to talk about Henrietta Lacks. We’re going to talk about Borough Memorial Hospital, which was the first black hospital for black Americans in Roanoke. We’re going to talk about the Old Lick Cemetery, which was destroyed to allow a freeway to cross it.”

Brown said he’s seen the impact of HiPS firsthand when people going through the virtual reality experience become emotional and reminisce about the past.

“Once individuals begin to understand the true story behind their culture, or any other historically underrepresented culture, we understand that there is an opportunity for us to use that story to raise those voices. But then as a society, as a community, as a country, [we can] come together and set about making a fairer place for all,” Brown said.