Impact Series

How a VR challenge documenting Seattle’s music historical past revealed the chance of a brand new digital divide

Guests at the Black and Tan Club, a leading jazz nightclub in Seattle’s Central District neighborhood, which operated from 1922 until 1966. This photo is from 1947. (Museum of History & Industry Photo, Al Smith Collection / Photo, Image number 2014.49.010-051-0102)

Yolanda Barton loves Seattle’s music history — the history that starts decades before Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden came screaming onto the scene and Macklemore took fans thrift store shopping.

We’re talking about the “honey at dusk” vocals of jazz legend Ernestine Anderson; about booty-celebrating rap superstar Sir Mix-a-Lot; about Quincy Jones, the jazz and pop music virtuoso and winner of 28 Grammy Awards; about iconoclastic guitarist Jimi Hendrix; and many more. All made groundbreaking contributions to American music, and all called Seattle’s historically African-American Central District home.

But as Seattle is being reimagined by tech-driven economic growth, neighborhoods including the Central District, which spans an area east of Interstate 5 and mostly north of Interstate 90, find that their links to the past are fading out.

Award winning musician and composer Quincy Jones on a visit to his alma mater, Garfield High School, in 1982. The Central District school now has a state-of-the-art performing center renamed for Jones. (MOHAI Photo, taken by Grant Haller for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Barton, a Seattle native, returned to the city in 2016 to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Washington after a few years away. She was troubled by the city’s rapid transformation. She feared that an essential volume of the city’s music history was being lost — particularly in the gentrifying Central District.

“Future generations won’t even know how much music played a role in Seattle, and this neighborhood was the center of that,” Barton said.

To prevent that from happening, Barton is pursuing an innovative solution, connecting Seattle’s tech present to its musically rich past by using virtual and augmented reality to capture and share this history.

But as she reached out to her community to record their stories and music, she made a discovery that inspired her to broaden her scope. Barton saw firsthand how the technology sector seemed to be blazing past whole swaths of the population as users of its products. Many people in her community, young and old alike, knew little about and had never experienced virtual reality.

“This is where I feel that tech companies are failing,” she said, “whether they know it or not.”

As part of her project, which she launched to fulfill a requirement for her UW master’s, Barton hosted events at a local community center and other locations to give Central District residents the chance to try VR.

“It was pretty awesome to be able to walk inside the virtual reality,” said Wadie Ervin, who taught music at Seattle’s Meany Middle School for 31 years beginning in 1972. He’s one of Barton’s interview subjects and had never tried the technology.

Yolanda Barton, UW PhD candidate who is working on a project to capture and share using virtual reality the music history of Seattle’s Central District neighborhood. (Yolanda Barton Photo)

Those in the VR field agree that access has been limited. But they explained that VR tools — including headsets, VR-capable computers and software — are still expensive and in some cases clunky for users. That has curtailed its broader adoption both for those creating VR or experiencing their alternate worlds.

“It’s not plug-and-play at all right now,” said Xuny Haley, a manager at the UW’s CoMotion Labs who helped Barton host some of her VR outreach events.

The hopeful news is that many in the VR sector recognize the need to take deliberate steps to make sure that some people aren’t excluded as they have been with earlier technologies. There are hackathons and meetup groups to put the tools into more hands. Organizations like Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, for example, have VR exhibits to try to serve a wider audience.

“This is a very hot topic in the industry,” said Nirav Desai, president of the Seattle chapter of the VR/AR Association. The sector wants to prevent a VR digital divide.

Ervin is eager for Barton’s VR project to reach and inspire local students.

“I can imagine how that would connect up with kids right away. They’re going to learn a lot faster and it’s going to be more fun for them,” he said.

Ervin, who still plays bass guitar with local R&B bands and at Mount Zion Baptist Church, rattled off numerous well- and lesser-known musicians who developed their musical chops in the Central District.

Ernestine Anderson performing at the High School Jazz Festival at Seattle’s Seward Park Amphitheater June 16, 1980. (MOHAI Photo)

“There was a whole richness of music in the school and the musicians who lived in the area,” he said, recalling the informal jam sessions that used to regularly take place.

Barton, who has now completed two master’s and is pursuing a PhD in Information Sciences at the UW, has interviewed more than 50 people for the project. Using VR, she wants to bring people into historically important spaces while hearing the interviews and music.

She’s considering a virtual walking tour of the neighborhood, or creating a VR visit to the home of Joe Powe, a lauded instructor from the Central District who taught folks from Quincy Jones to gospel choirs. Barton says she’ll be seeking grant support to get the work completed.

Anita Verna Crofts is the associate director of academic affairs for the UW’s Communication Leadership graduate program and helped advise Barton.

“There’s something really compelling about the preservation of memory and the way in which technology can amplify history for a modern audience,” Crofts said.

She was also excited about Barton’s community building and effort to share the technology more widely.

Seattle still loves Sir Mix-a-Lot, who played at a fundraising event for the Seattle Art Museum at the outdoor Olympic Sculpture Park in 2017. (Brent Roraback Photo)

“There was a level of demystifying a technology and making it more relevant to a population,” Crofts said. “New technology is not just a playground of the young. There are intergenerational benefits.”

Crofts would like to see this approach become a national model for other communities that want to archive and bring their music history to new audiences.

Beyond the VR history project, Barton is eager to help technology companies bridge the chasm separating their current customer base and potentially overlooked populations — like those in her racially, generationally diverse community.

“Your technology can’t reach its greatest impact if it’s not in enough people’s hands,” Barton said. Without that expansion, “we’re leaving a great part of the world behind.”

MOHAI photos reprinted with permission. See more about the museum’s collections.

Editor’s Note: Funding for GeekWire’s Impact Series is provided by the Singh Family Foundation in support of public service journalism. GeekWire editors and reporters operate independently and maintain full editorial control over the content.

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