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CALL: VR Development

I am a social psychologist at Lehigh University. In my work, I investigate whether engagement in immersive virtual environments can improve cross-race communication and understanding. I am planning to apply for a Magic Grant through Columbia’s Brown Institute (due 4/10/20) proposing a VR project that integrates CS, social psychology, and social justice theatre to improve interracial interactions. I’ve been communicating with Micahel Krisch, who has expressed interest in this work, but suggests that I have an NYC-based partner to improve the possibility of funding. Michael suggested that I contact you, given your connection to (and strong engagement with students/alumni of) ITP. 
I am interested in collaborating with students (or alumni) who have interest and expertise in developing VR technology for social good. In this case, the project imagines ways to integrate theatrical frameworks into an immersive VR platform designed to improve people’s cross-race interactions. The budget of the Magic Grant is generous and, if this proposal is chosen, it would include graduate student(s) funding, among other personnel and equipment-related items. I’m reaching out to you to see if you might share this invitation. And, please feel free to tap those who you might know that could be a particularly good fit. 
The timeline is shorter than expected (application is due 4/10/20)–my work and home-life were in disarray these past few weeks due to COVID-19–and I’m sure things are the same your way. I would be happy to talk with you via phone if that might help clarify my needs. You came highly suggested by Michael, so I look forward to hearing from you!

Project Description:Much research, also corroborated by people’s personal experiences, find interracial interactions with strangers to be quite anxiety-provoking, and such anxiety can impact race relations more generally. This work proposes a unique solution to this problem by aiming to reduce anxiety and improve the quality of interracial encounters through engagement in multiple interracial interaction experiences from various perspectives in immersive virtual reality (VR) environments. We adapt Augusto Boal’s social justice theater technique of spect-acting for VR in which audience members step into the “actor’s” (i.e., avatars) role, re-write the script, and change the outcome with other characters. The project includes learning these theatrical techniques for VR application, scripting various stressful interracial encounters (culled from real-life interracial interaction experiences gone wrong), and implementing them and the choices people can make in each encounter using finite state machines and behavioral trees in Unity. The goal is for users to embody one or multiple characters in the scene and literally “re-write the script,” revising the outcome for the better in VR. Users would then repeat the experience multiple times and from the perspective of different actors with the goals of reducing cross-race anxiety, enhancing perspective-taking and empathy, and importantly providing a “script” of strategies for successfully navigating stressful interracial social and workplace encounters. 
The design of the proposal is ongoing, and input from additional collaborators is welcomed and strongly encouraged!
Thank you for your time! Any suggestions that you might have would be much appreciated.
Warm regards, Valerie


Dr. Valerie Jones Taylor

Assistant Professor 

Department of Psychology and Africana Studies

Chandler-Ullmann 113

Lehigh University