“Highway of Tears” Virtual Reality: Hardware and Interface

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On Wednesday I attended event in Frost with Danika Medak-Saltzman (so this counts as two posts?), where there were digital projects about indigenous futures, including a virtual reality experience about the “Highway of Tears,” a rural highway in British Columbia where large numbers of Indigenous girls and women have disappeared or been found killed over the past several decades. As the player, you are taken back and forth between scenes along the highway, aerial scenes above the highway, and scenes inside the home of one of the victims. Whether or not this project is considered a ‘game,’ there are aspects of the interface and user experience that I was conscious of in the same way I am when I play a game. For example, many groups last week spoke about the desire for accessibility in their platform games, so when I approached this VR, that was in the back of my mind. However, the hardware for the game, which is a kind of headset, is incompatible with glasses. Someone who needs close-up vision correction would have to choose between not being able to really see the VR or just not using it at all.

Another aspect of the VR I was curious about was the “controller” which in this case was just the motion detection built into normal smartphones, and the users body. With the phone (in a cardboard viewer) held up to your eyes, the player controls which way they look by physically turning their head/body. What made that most intriguing to me was the fact that the technology used to view this virtual reality was not obscure and not out of reach to those who can afford smartphone, which differed from my expectations of how easily I could access VR. However, the tradeoff for this availability and relative affordability was a less interactive experience. You control where you look, but you don’t have any other ability to take action like you would in more advanced VRs with motion sensors for the player’s body. This created a weird disconnect in which my sight and hearing became surrounded by a world that the rest of my body couldn’t access.

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