#54: Bryan Carter on Virtual Harlem & Immersing learners into the 1920s Renaissance/Jazz Age

Bryan Carter has been using virtual worlds for education since 1997, and he talks about the lessons learned from his Virtual Harlem project to immerse students into the literature and music from the 1920s. He talks about some of the resistance that he received from his peers in Africana studies, and how his students are already immersed in technology and that using virtual worlds is a way to create more engaging and potent learning experiences.

Bryan-CarterHarlem in the 1920s was improvisational and edgy, and Bryan is attempting to recreate this feeling with his virtual recreation. It was one of the first extended recreated environments for African Americans and so it attracted role playing, entertainment, live performances, lectures, poetry slams, and DJ performances, and businesses, educators and a range of different classes being taught within Virtual Harlem.

He talks about diversifying his presence from Second Life to OpenSim as well as some of his future plans with Unity and experiencing Virtual Harlem within fully immersive virtual reality with the Oculus Rift.


  • 0:00 – Intro. African American literature of 20th Century and Digital Humanities. Virtual Harlem as existed by 1920s jazz age. Wanted students to experience some of the literature from the 1990
  • 1:05 – Started into VR in 1997. Some of the Silicon Graphics and CAVE technology used back then
  • 2:04 – Used Quake for lower-cost multi-player networking, then VRML, and then eventually Second Life
  • 2:54 – Virtual Harlem is focused on African American Life and culture. Attracted role playing, entertainment, live performances, lectures, poetry slams, and DJ performances, and businesses, educators and classes being taught. Then other platforms opened. Linden Labs briefly eliminated non-profit pricing, which
  • 4:05 – Educational lessons from Virtual Harlem. Have a short-term, medium-term, and long-term plan. How to teach in these environments. Other African American scholars have more of a wait-and-see mindset, and there’s a resistance towards things that new and technological, and to games and virtual worlds. Engagement and success will help convince others of it’s worth.
  • 6:27 – Bringing diversity to Second Life. Field of Africana studies came from activist roots, and some question why work with something that’s not real when there’s so much other “real” problems happening. Some don’t see relevance of virtual worlds. Perceived as a distraction, hobby or a toy.
  • 7:23 – Create an educational period piece and collaborating with businesses. Cities have diversity from education, commerce, entertainment and other media as well. OpenSim, Second Life and Unity.
  • 8:23 – Immersing people into the music of the time. Jazz was edgy and improvisational. Immerse them within the environment.
  • 9:23 – Be prepared for your technology to fail. There are different levels of Internet connectivity. You don’t have control over the entire ecosystem. Tech failures can frustrate students.
  • 10:32 – Change in discount pricing in Second Life. Migrating towards open source OpenSim version of Virtual Harlem. Funding is more difficult, but the community is in Second Life. Hopes to have a presence in a number of different diverse places.
  • 11:42 – Future of the metaverse. Working with Virtual World Web company, and they’re creating Curio. WebGL is also a possibility. Open communication channels up between these worlds.
  • 13:28 – Using fully immersive VR within Virtual Harlem.
  • 14:37 – Future of education with immersive technologies. Many new tools in this new toolkit, and they all need to work more seamlessly together and connect to these disparate worlds.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.996] Bryan Carter: My name is Brian Carter. I'm an assistant professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I teach in the Africana Studies program, but my primary area of specialty is African American literature of the 20th century and digital humanities. Virtual Harlem is a representation of both Harlem, New York, and one of the Arrondissements in Paris, the 18th Arrondissement Montmartre, as they both existed during the 1920s jazz age. It was inspired by my desire to have my students, back when I was completing my PhD program, experience some of the literature that we happened to have been studying when I was teaching intro to African-American literature classes. So I submitted a grant proposal to a fantastic organization, the Advanced Technology Center there, and they helped me realize the early stages of the Virtual Harlem project back in 1997. So we've been in VR for quite some time.

[00:01:06.558] Kent Bye: Yeah, maybe talk a bit about the technology that you were using back then in 1997 to realize this vision of Virtual Harlem.

[00:01:13.063] Bryan Carter: Sure. Well, the guys were using some pretty high-end machines back then, Silicon Graphics, infinite reality machines. They were driving our one-walled cave, which we called the VEIL, the Virtual Environment Instructional Lab. that was a tiered theater sort of room. They were using applications like multi-gen and of course 3D Studio Max to build this environment and to modify textures and they were applying that and we could actually walk through that world with one person basically driving the environment and then connecting that one walled cave-like world or structure to other caves around the world. So we can actually have several people in a space but only one person per space. So it was sort of like the earlier versions of the massive multi-user domains that we see now.

[00:02:03.343] Kent Bye: I see, and you had mentioned that you had used the Quake engine to help facilitate some of that networking. Can you talk a bit about that?

[00:02:08.867] Bryan Carter: Well yeah, that was one of the versions of Virtual Harlem. The early Virtual Harlem back then existed both in these caves and then there were some students that were experimenting with using full-fledged gaming engines using the levels that you can sort of apply and recreate Harlem there. Basically looking for a lower cost solution that would also allow for the multi-user experience. They weren't as happy with that solution and so we experimented with things like VRML and other gaming engines until finally Second Life came along back in 2004-2005. So I think I got in it right around then and had a number of different presence on that particular space before the first funding came in to allow for the importation of the Virtual Harlem project.

[00:02:53.198] Kent Bye: Okay, yeah, so maybe talk about what type of experiences could one have if they went to Virtual Harlem in Second Life?

[00:03:00.199] Bryan Carter: Well, Virtual Harlem went through a number of stages in SL. I have to say it was probably one of the earliest and one of the first focused environments on African-American life and culture. I mean, an entire environment as opposed to just a structure. And so as a result of that, it attracted people who wanted to do role play, people who wanted to do entertainment. So we had live performances. and speaking engagements, poetry slams, DJs that were performing at various venues there. Businesses began to open there. Educators were doing talks, artists doing exhibits, all kinds of things. So it was a very vibrant community. And then classes were being taught there. So one could expect to basically run into almost anything on that particular environment. So for a few years, it was very, very popular. And then I started to notice other platforms begin to sprout up and people were becoming curious and going in other directions. And then, of course, the bottom dropped out when Linden sort of moved away from their educational discount pricing and became a little bit sort of distancing themselves from educators. So that caused a little bit of a mass exodus as well.

[00:04:05.663] Kent Bye: I see. And so maybe talk about the educational lessons that you learn from having a virtual environment like Virtual Harlem.

[00:04:14.585] Bryan Carter: Right. There are a lot of lessons learned and they're still being learned. One of the things I'll be talking about tomorrow is making sure that one has not only a short term and medium term plan for whatever type of presence one is going to build within a virtual world, but also have an extremely long-term plan where you want this to be in five and ten years or if you even plan on still working with this particular technology. how to teach, how to interact within these worlds, I think is a very important skill. I'll never forget the early debates when Second Life was just beginning to implement voice and educators, or some educators, were very enthusiastic. Oh great, now we don't have to worry about typing our talks to students all, you know, as far as our communications go. And then some were, you know, no, it's going to break the experience. And so just the way that we communicate within these worlds was hotly debated, and I think they're going to be more instances of ways that we can communicate with others within virtual spaces that we still have to learn how to do effectively. And then most importantly for my field, I think looking at how there are quite a few African American scholars, unfortunately, who tend to have more of a wait and see how technology is going to work or even some sort of covert resistance to extreme uses of technology because it's just not as much a part of the more experienced generation's culture. With regards to having that sort of interaction with students in real life and focusing on the real, I think that sometimes there's that resistance to looking at how kids are using mobile devices and immersing themselves in that and then even worse yet, games or virtual worlds, and there are quite a few that I think are resistant to that. So I think that by demonstrating some very interesting uses of technology that will impact the field in a very positive way, as well as impact student learning and things like that, that may help turn some resistant faces around so that they'll be more accepting of what we do here. So that's been one of the most important lessons. keeping in mind that Virtual Harlem will continue to exist in more high-end platforms and that's what we're exploring now is how higher-end graphics will either change or reduce or some way impact the learning experience.

[00:06:27.345] Kent Bye: And so what has been your experience with bringing more diversity to Second Life?

[00:06:32.128] Bryan Carter: Well, to Second Life, it's been good. I mean, there have been some that have sometimes mocked, why are you messing around with avatars when there's so much real stuff going on? Because that's the way that the field of Africana Studies has sort of shaped itself. Historically speaking, you know, it came out of activist roots. And so there are many of those activist heads that don't see a relevance and what's happening in virtual worlds, you know, they may in some way see it as a distraction or even something more like a hobby or a toy. So you see the difference? So I think that in that sense there's been some resistance, but there's been some exciting, I think, acceptance by, you know, some of the younger generation coming through the ranks now and I think they've, you know, really embraced technology because of course, you know, they've grown up with various aspects of it. So it's fun to see how they're implementing these tools in their classes.

[00:07:23.567] Kent Bye: And how do you balance the trying to create a period piece with having businesses come in and creating a whole ecosystem of other things happening?

[00:07:32.312] Bryan Carter: Well, you know, that is a fine balance. And I think it's important to look at, you know, what you envision that period piece to be and whether it has to be just one thing. And I think that when you look at a city, there's so much happening there. It's not just education. It's not just of entertainment or their businesses. There are all these other things happening. And I envision Virtual Harlem to become just that, where not only can anything happen there, whether it be education or commerce, entertainment or even exhibits, you know, other forms of media being, you know, sort of infused into that space, but I also envision it existing on different levels and different planes. So whether it's in Second Life and OpenSim and Unity, but also whatever else comes along, whether it be a blending of real life and virtual life or whatever the case might be. sort of like the movie Cloud Atlas where all these worlds can intersect at some point.

[00:08:23.798] Kent Bye: And because this time period had an element of jazz and music, what is it that is so compelling about your virtual recreation of these structures in this environment that help people connect to the music?

[00:08:35.974] Bryan Carter: Well, you know, if you think about what these worlds are, and that's sort of theoretic aspect of virtual worlds that I think is really quite interesting. You know, the Jazz Age was improvisational. You never knew what was coming, not only visually, but also musically and tactilely. I mean, the different smells, everything was so out there that people sometimes expected things to run more in rhythm, but that wasn't what the Jazz Age was about. Well, think about Harlem on that level as well, where it's kind of edgy, it's kind of improvisational. You don't know what's going to happen around the next corner within this virtual environment. So I see it as, in some ways, being the visual and tactile parallel of a period that students can no longer experience because, of course, it's no longer here. But in some ways, they can sort of relate to that because of what they're experiencing within that virtual world.

[00:09:23.913] Kent Bye: Were there any things that you tried in Virtual Harlem that you found just didn't work at all?

[00:09:28.877] Bryan Carter: Definitely. Yeah, you know, the tech will fail. You just have to be prepared for that. So there are always going to be some students, particularly if they are physically dispersed, that you have no idea what their bandwidth is. You have no idea how old or young their computer is or if they're connected to Wi-Fi or if it's fast Wi-Fi or slow Wi-Fi or if someone in their house is downloading a movie or something that's taking up all the band. So you have no idea what's going on. And in that respect, aspects of your tech will fail because you don't have total control over the ecosystem. So I think that when I've tried voice, you know, for the first times, when we tried live concerts early on before broadband became a bit more ubiquitous, yeah, we've had some tech failures and frustrated students because, you know, why are we in this world? Why can't we just learn, quote, the right way? And so there's where, you know, of course, learning chance, right? So what is the right way of learning? You know, and so you can talk about that whole issue of you know, right and wrong ways of learning that students have sort of become acculturated to accept. So, yeah, things will fail. It's just a matter of how you handle that.

[00:10:33.352] Kent Bye: You had mentioned that there was a change in discount pricing for educators in Second Life. I'm curious, does that mean that you don't have a presence in Second Life now, or how has it changed since then?

[00:10:42.773] Bryan Carter: Well, the change in discount, you know, I held on for as long as I could, paying that out of my pocket, which was very expensive for three islands, then cut down to two, and then, you know, I held on as long as I could, but, you know, with government funding drying up for a company like Second Life, because it's privately held, and moving more towards the open source community. There were fewer and fewer funds available to support these kinds of endeavors. Even a lot of universities were moving away from that presence so they could host their own Open SEM version of Second Life. But the decision was so difficult because the community is in Second Life and there's so many people there and Harlem really was a very interesting presence for the environment. But I did have to move because of expenses really. And when they took that discount away and then later on brought it back, I had already moved my presence out to OpenSim. That doesn't mean that I won't come back and that doesn't mean that I won't have a presence on Second Life as well as OpenSim as well as Unity and begin to realize that dream of having these, you know, similar yet multiple existence in a number of different locations. So we'll see.

[00:11:43.368] Kent Bye: Well, I think the interesting point about that is, you know, the future of the metaverse and having something that's accessible and not closed and proprietary. And to me, I find it kind of hard to envision the metaverse really coming in to Linden Labs is, you know, proprietary, like you have to pay this amount of money rather than having something that's more like the internet. So where do you see the development of the metaverse going, taking into consideration all those things?

[00:12:10.279] Bryan Carter: Well, I really do think I'm currently working with an organization called the Virtual World Web. They're housed in Vancouver, and they're the ones that are working with me to realize Virtual Harlem using their Unity engine as the underlying runtime engine. But they're creating what's referred to as the 3D web browser, which will allow people from their particular browser called Curio to navigate the regular 2D web. But then with the proper URL, you'll be able to navigate right into a 3D environment. and be able to wander that world. Google is doing the same thing basically with their WebGL that allows one to navigate real life spaces with just your browser. So I think it's the browser that's going to take us more so into these locations and as soon as they begin to incorporate things like the Rift or even other augmented reality glasses I think that's really what's going to sort of propel this notion of opening the communication channels up between these different worlds. So that's what's going to help, I think.

[00:13:12.319] Kent Bye: Yeah, and just to follow up on that WebGL point, Mozilla did a port of the OpenGL into WebGL, and so it's sort of more of an open standard. I foresee, like, a lot more of web browsers using that in order to get in there, but you had mentioned the Rift, and I'm curious about how have you used the Oculus Rift and the fully immersive virtual reality within Virtual Harlem? Right.

[00:13:33.992] Bryan Carter: Well, the organization that's currently housing Virtual Harlem now is the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and the guys did a wonderful job porting Virtual Harlem from Second Life over to OpenSim. And so within their environment, my colleague over there, Dr. Alan Miller, who runs their computing science area, graphic science area, he and his colleagues have already incorporated Oculus Rift into Virtual Harlem. And so I've seen it in action when we were both in Paris last fall. Harlem is working in OpenSim using the Oculus, but it's also working using the Curio browser, using the Unity runtime engine. and it looks fantastic there as well. The colleagues from Vancouver came to Prague with me just this past spring, and we did a presentation there at the Immersive Worlds in Education Conference, I believe it was, Virtual Environments in Education. And so they brought two Oculus Rifts with them and showed Harlem in that respect. So it looks absolutely wonderful, and navigating that world from a fully immersive perspective really does change the way that I think students are going to interact with it.

[00:14:37.855] Kent Bye: Great, and finally we're here at the Immersive Education Initiative's Immersion 2014 and so there's a lot of talk about education and immersive education and what do you see as the ultimate potential of using immersive technologies and how that can help education?

[00:14:54.177] Bryan Carter: Well, I think it's just definitely one of the many technologies that educators should be exploring that I think are a part of the future sort of toolkit that we'll have to interact with our students. Immersive technologies, semi-immersive or augmented technologies, as well as 2D streaming and broadcasting technologies, I think are all a part of that. And I'd like to see them all begin to work more seamlessly with one another. I think we're just beginning to look at that right now, where last night we saw people streaming pre-recorded broadcasts, YouTube videos, et cetera, into Second Life. I have already done live broadcasts into that environment using HTML on a prem a few years back. So I know that these things are possible. So now it's just a matter of people doing that more so on a regular basis, or even the environment building those tools into their clients so that we can begin to more seamlessly connect these disparate worlds.

[00:15:49.284] Kent Bye: And is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:15:52.081] Bryan Carter: No, just thanks for being here and thank you for allowing me. Oh, I'm doing another few publications and what I'd like to do is within my last publication, I incorporated some augmented reality image triggers. I'd like to do the same thing with this recording if I could put an image perhaps of you or your logo so that people could scan it with an augmented reality application and hear this interview.

[00:16:12.541] Kent Bye: Yeah, for sure. Great.

[00:16:13.943] Bryan Carter: Thank you so much. Thanks so much. Take it easy. Thanks for doing this.

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