Kristina Llewellyn, an associate professor of social development studies at Renison University College, is using virtual reality technology to educate people about the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children. - Mathew McCarthy, Record staff
Three people who endured years of abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children will see their heart-rending stories come back to life in a virtual reality experience that is being developed in The Games Institute at the University of Waterloo.
It is the first project by Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation, a group founded by Kristina Llewellyn, an associate professor of social development studies at Renison University College at UW.
Llewellyn was inspired by a phone call from her nephew in Halifax, Owen Llewellyn-Brown, who had interviewed Tony Smith, a survivor of the segregated residential school. Owen wrote an oral history of Smith's experiences, and it won an award at a heritage fair.
Llewellyn was struck by her nephew's passion, and how much Smith's story impacted her nephew. Smith had talked about a large rock on the grounds of the residential school as a special place he would seek out for peace. Owen visited the grounds, found the rock and brought a small piece back to Smith, who keeps it on his desk.
There is an ongoing relationship between the young, white schoolboy from a middle class family in Halifax, and the elderly black man who worked for years to get a public inquiry into the abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children.
"And that is the potential I think of oral history and storytelling for education," said Llewellyn.
Llewellyn, whose PhD thesis was an oral history of teaching education, immediately started thinking about ways her nephew's experience could be shared among thousands of students. Done properly it would teach history, engage young people and spark empathy that could change race relations.
Llewellyn was talking about this with a librarian at Renison, one of four colleges affiliated with UW, who suggested Llewellyn check out the Oculus virtual reality headset at the library.
Through the bulky viewfinder that covered her eyes, Llewellyn was taken back in time to a caveman who was telling stories. "Not what I had in mind, but when I saw it and experienced it myself, I realized the potential," she said.
Llewellyn had found the medium she had been dreaming about. It changed the direction of the young academic's career, putting her on the cutting edge of pairing virtual reality technology and classroom education.
Her first stop was The Games Institute, which occupies part of a former BlackBerry building at Phillip and Columbia streets. Neil Randall, the institute's director, was enthusiastic about Llewellyn's idea for using virtual reality software to tell survivors' stories from a painful chapter in Canadian history.
"Every system we live in, every community we live in, every culture we live in is very complex and many people cannot get it by reading books," he said.
"They can't get it by watching documentaries and let's face it, they are not all that exciting sometimes. But if you can actually participate through a game system you can learn a lot more."
The institute provided space, hardware and technical support for Llewellyn. She set up the Digital Oral Histories Project for Reconciliation, secured a $200,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and a no-strings grant of $100,000 from Oculus, which is owned by Facebook.
"They are really interested to understand the value of this kind of VR storytelling, which they also see as very groundbreaking," Llewellyn said of the Oculus grant.
The VR experience about the home for coloured children should be ready for Nova Scotia classrooms in early 2019.
"And Nova Scotia will end up being ahead of most of the other provinces when it comes to a really meaningful way of using VR in the classroom," said Llewellyn.
She believes there are lots of possibilities to use VR resources to address various historical harms — the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, forcing First Nations children into residential schools and the Holocaust.
But that is all in the future. First, Llewellyn and The Games Institute have to finish the VR experience about three survivors of the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children.
Interviews with the survivors are recorded. Artists study photos, videos and plans of the school. They also use the interviews to recreate the interior of the school and the surrounding grounds, including the rock that was a refuge for some.
Software developers, computer scientists, artists, writers and technicians all help build the visual and audio content that creates the virtual world. The entire VR experience will run about 15 minutes and include the experiences of three survivors.
What viewers see in their VR headsets will be complemented by the recorded recollections of the survivors. A student watching this will be able to turn on the radio in the kitchen of the residential school and hear the music that was played back then. They will meet the matron who oversaw the kitchen and took a liking to one of the boys, giving him extra food and the nickname Bread-and-Butter Boy.
It is not about entertainment, but educating young people and developing their historical consciousness about racism, said Llewellyn. And doing it in a way that spark empathy and support for more justice in race relations of the future, she said.
"VR is not the end game here, it's a medium for something that is going to be far more transformative, and very innovative in addressing serious social problems," she said.
"That's what I think the Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation project offers, and increasingly that's what places like The Games Institute will offer."
Randall had no idea researchers would be doing VR experiences like this when the institute was being established in 2012 with one of the biggest research grants ever received by the humanities department — $2.5 million in cash and $3.3 million in in-kind services.
"It fits with the deep interaction idea that we look at games as," said Randall. "What we define as a game is really any intense user experience."
Today, more than 40 people work at the institute and its research centre called Immerse. They include professors, graduate students and visiting scholars from the arts, applied health sciences, engineering, environmental sciences, mathematics and sciences working with the technology related to augmented reality and virtual reality.
Randall said they are doing research on VR experiences to train surgeons, help patients stick with their exercises while in rehabilitation and others that help people cope with anxiety and depression.
"You can layer the game concept on top of almost anything," he said.
Mark Hancock, associate director of the institute, typifies the interdisciplinary research at Immerse. He is an associate professor in of the Department of Management Sciences. His background is in human-computer interactions.
"I call what I do, game-interaction science," said Hancock. "This meeting point is really trying to do a deep dive about what makes things engaging."
Some of the biggest advances in computers were all about how people control and interact with the machines — monitors with graphical user interfaces (GUIs), keyboards, the mouse, touch screens, voice commands and electrical signals from moving muscles.
"Human computer interactions drive research and development of novel technologies," said Hancock.
Art, design and technology all come into play with human-computer interactions and gaming brings all of three together nicely, he said.
He noted that one of his graduate students researches ways to bring together people for gaming who normally would not play together — grandparents and grandchildren, husbands and wives. He calls that asymmetrical gaming.