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Virtual Reality Project Uncovers Richmond's Hidden Black History

HiPS Hippodrome

To most folks who walk the streets of Richmond, history is plainly visible. But what about the invisible history? What about the stories and lives in our past that have been erased - especially stories of Black history?

Hidden in Plain Site: Richmond (HiPS) is a new endeavor that uses Extended Reality (XR) technology to reveal important stories of the Black experience in Richmond. Through this technology, a viewer can explore easy-to-overlook sites around the city that unveil a history of Black lives previously hidden. HiPS brings these historic sites to life by augmenting their current appearance with historical imagery and compelling narrative storytelling. A viewer only needs internet access to interact with locations, such as Lumpkin’s Jail or The Hippodrome, in a whole new way.

The idea sprang from a collaboration of three local business leaders - Dean Browell, co-founder of Feedback and host of Dent: Blend Richmond; Dontrese Brown, co-founder and partner at BROWNBAYLOR™ and executive director of the EDGE Center for Career Development at Randolph Macon College; and David Waltenbaugh, founder of Root VR. Together, they asked the question, “What can we do?” in response to the current opportunities for change and the historical context in which our community stands at this moment. Telling a richer, fuller, and more accessible story was their answer.

“It’s important for us to tell the narrative of the Black American experience that has been erased within our nation, and more specifically, our city and state,” says Brown. “And, like the lotus flower, we will emerge from the darkness of the parking lots and buildings that have erased our voices, and tell the true story of our existence, strength, and determination.”

Of the importance of this project, Browell says, “Hidden In Plain Site as a concept is meant to be a gateway to the kind of history that doesn’t get monuments. We were researching and scouting while the entire monument discussion around Richmond was reaching a fever pitch this summer and it was stunning to juxtapose arguments about how monuments tell our history while we were uncovering history that in some cases doesn’t even get a historical marker.”

What makes HiPS unique for the Richmond region is the use of XR virtual and augmented technology to tell Black stories hidden in history. By creating an XR-enabled virtual tour that requires only an internet-connected device, HiPS creates a tool accessible to many, in particular those who rely upon virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Virtual reality (VR) technology holds incredible potential to tell powerful stories like those in our narrative in impactful new ways,” says Waltenbaugh. “In addition to promoting empathy in a manner that was previously impossible, the immersive nature of the technology enhances education and learning retention and brings these stories to life as never before."

Waltenbaugh goes on to say, "Technology is frequently referred to as a great equalizer, but that is only possible when technology is available and accessible to all. While we recognize the immense potential virtual reality holds for our project, we were very intentional to create a platform which is available in a multitude of standard formats including web, desktop, and mobile in a genuine effort to make it accessible by as many individuals and organizations as possible."

Hidden in Plain Site: Richmond releases at midnight Friday, November 27. It will feature the then-and-now of ten sites in Richmond: The Lee Monument, Lumpkin's Jail, Gabriel’s hanging site, the Richmond 34 Sit-In, the childhood homes of Maggie Walker & William Ferguson Reid, The Hippodrome Theatre, the Eggleston Hotel, the erased community of Navy Hill, the Adams Express Company Richmond office where Henry “Box” Brown shipped himself to Freedom, and John Mitchell and the Richmond Planet’s Electric Printing Press at Swan Tavern.