philip lelyveld The world of entertainment technology



Black creators are underrepresented in VR, AR and XR. Crux helps them secure funds and tell their stories.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a series of discoveries allowed geologists and seismologists to pinpoint one of the largest earthquakes in history down to its date, magnitude and duration, despite it having hit nearly 300 years prior. It was only years later that researchers decided to analyze Native American stories of earthquakes in the same region, handed down orally by generation — studies that pointed them to a remarkably accurate date range.

Clearly, they should have considered those stories much sooner.

For Ruffin, the tale illustrates a failure on the part of researchers to expand their frameworks, to recognize relevance where it plainly stands. It’s a shortcoming she sees in her own field, as someone committed to helping VR, XR and AR creators from marginalized communities secure funding for their projects.

“When do we get to a place when Black, brown and queer creators don’t have to make our stories legible to white funders?” she said. “I think half the time people get no’s because white people can’t see themselves in the story, or they can’t see where the audience is.”

From Roger Ross Williams’ Traveling While Black to Hyphen Labs’ NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, virtual reality projects by Black creators have received notable coverage and accolades in recent years, but making those projects happen can be difficult.

The watershed 2011 report Fusing Art, Culture and Social Change found that distribution of funds to arts institutions was “demonstrably out of balance” with demographics. A 2017 follow-up determined that the problem had only worsened.

Crux takes a multi-pronged approach to supporting to Black virtual reality creators. It’s part producer, part virtual events platform and part fundraiser.

Inequity manifests itself in a few ways in the virtual-reality world, Ruffin said, including hardware design that suits certain facial structures better than others and — in some VR games — lingering bugs that allow for abusive interactions. But funding disparities top her list of concerns.

Last year, the organization hosted two salons that brought together traditional philanthropic investors with Black artists. Crux has since been able to distribute close to a million dollars from funders to Black XR/VR creators. Among the projects in the works are a large-scale public-art AR piece, featuring living Black Panthers Party members, in partnership with Metastage. Crux also functions as a cooperative, with a small percentage of member earnings going into a fund to support future projects.

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