Spring 2016

Time Machine

Virtual Reality: Students visit Harlem and Paris circa 1920

When we catch up with Bryan Carter, he’s in Paris.

In real life.

In talking about Carter, UA assistant professor of Africana Studies and intrepid trekker of the digital universe, that’s a critical distinction.

Carter is known for using virtual reality to make the world more real for his students. From the realm of digital technology, he draws key but often-overlooked details about pivotal epochs in African-American history, such as Harlem’s buzzing heyday as a black cultural hub or the 1920s and ’30s in Paris, where a vibrant expatriate community of African-Americans found freedom.

At this writing, Carter is in the City of Light with several of his students, re-examining black heritage through hands-on exploration and digital re-creation for his course, Topics in Africana Studies: African Americans in Paris. The goal is a rich understanding of the expat experience in France, which embraced American blacks at a time when they faced fierce racism back home. 

Carter prepared his students before the trip with virtual journeys through the iconic city, bringing African-American landmarks and archival material to life with everything from music to maps. During their real journey to Paris, their work includes creating detailed documentaries with smartphones. “They also augment a variety of historic locations in Paris with additional information overlaid on those images,” says Carter. “So when it’s scanned with an augmented reality application, that additional information appears on the screen of the user’s mobile device.”    

Carter is among a growing number of educators who see digital devices like iPads and smartphones as invaluable for blending virtual and real-environment learning. Their use “not only creates a more powerful experience for the student,” he says, “but also a more memorable experience. And whenever you can create additional memories, you not only add more meaning, but also more long-term learning that students can refer to in other classes and later in their lives.”  

The idea, he says, “is to get the information to them in as many ways as possible, whether it’s visual, tactile, or audial. Along with the use of their mobile devices, it really does create a powerful set of memories.” 

Carter has spent two decades in the vanguard of integrating technology and instruction. His own virtual odyssey dates back at least to 1997, when he used 3-D technology to re-create Harlem’s Jazz Age renaissance of the 1920s. 

The Virtual Harlem Project, which grew out of his doctoral studies at the University of Missouri - Columbia, was among the first virtual-reality environments to be used in teaching humanities or African-American studies. With an evocative mix of art galleries, theaters, and cultural hotspots like the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater, Virtual Harlem became a hit in academia, and Carter has presented it at conferences around the world.  

Since technology changes rapidly, though, today’s cutting-edge project can be tomorrow’s dinosaur. To keep Virtual Harlem current, Carter has moved it to new and better virtual platforms. Its first incarnation, dominated by historic photographs and maps, was barely interactive. Today, the project collaborates with a company called Virtual World Web to present a mosaic of stunning graphics, text, voice recordings, and virtual environments that can be navigated with one-click ease.

Carter’s Paris project taps into the emerging technology of augmented reality. In this approach, real-world environments are enhanced — or augmented — with superimposed images, adding texture to a scene or place. 

For Carter’s students, that real-world environment includes the storied haunts of early 20th-century Paris. The augmented reality was left to their imaginations. Some added archival images to create a virtual museum dedicated to the Harlem Hellfighters, an African-American infantry unit assigned to the French military in World War I because racism in the American War Department would not allow African-Americans to fight in combat. They could only be engineers, cooks, or medics. 

Carter’s students might sleuth for archival images and video footage of the Hellfighters in combat or of their regimental band, which introduced jazz to the rest of Europe during the war. 

“This virtual museum can be configured any way the student likes,” Carter says,” including images, text, and video, so that when visitors enter that space, they’ll be able to learn about the Harlem Hellfighters in a very active way.

“Very few know about jazz and how it was introduced to the rest of Europe during and after World War I,” he continues. “African-Americans made the largest impact upon Paris — with regard to music and culture and entertainment — of any group that has come to the city voluntarily. Re-creating that and using augmented reality not only gives students a sense of history and pride, but also rounds out their education.” 

While more traditional educators might balk at such a heavy reliance on technology, Carter sees it as the future. And his students? They find it a natural fit. “Even though this generation may not know all about the technologies they carry around with them all the time,” he says, “like virtual or augmented reality, they are very open to accepting the use of it in their lives.”