How Virtual Reality can melt your heart.

The Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard Street

I ‘spoke’ to a Greek immigrant who moved to New York in 1913 at the weekend. Her name was Victoria Confino and I ‘met’ her on one of the tours organized at the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side.

This was one of the first tenement settlements established in New York at the start of the 20th century, allowing immigrant families who had just arrived in the city the residential stepping stone they needed to get on their feet before moving on or moving up into their new American lives.

97 Orchard Street currently serves the city of New York as a museum, where visitors curious about the history of the city, immigration, the Lower East Site and the role it played in the American melting pot of the 19th and 20th centuries can uncover some of the families who lived there; the businesses that flourished in the area; the standard of life and the amenities; the cultural differences between immigrants’ home countries and the New World; the conflict between their perception of the American Dream as perceived from afar and the everyday harsh realities and anxieties of actually immigrating and living in the US, in particular New York.

Victoria Confino

In the tour I attended, an actress impersonated 20th century immigrant Victoria Confino and welcomed visitors inside her family’s apartment. Her whole attire, demeanor and talk was tuned to that of the real-life character, a 14-year-old Jewish girl who had moved from Greece with her family to escape her brother being enlisted in the Great War (World War I, at the time).

She now lived in the tenement at 97 Orchard Street; worked as a seamstress in her father’s business sowing aprons; slept on the kitchen floor in her family’s apartment; went to kindergarten as she arrived in the US at the age of 11 to pick up English; said her father would allow her not to marry at 15 and wait a little more before he chose a husband for her, although she still didn’t know what to make of ‘the modern women’ of New York who were choosing their boyfriends and husbands ‘on romantic love’; thought Orchard Street was safe, although Allen Street, one block West, was dangerous at night because of the women who worked there.

Between two worlds

I learned the above from the actress playing ‘Victoria’, listening to her perched on a chair in ‘her family’s apartment’, asking the actress / real-life immigrant question after question about her life.

I had signed up for a museum tour and stepped back in time, my heart leaping and warming at the thought that I had the opportunity of ‘speaking’ to someone from another time, culture, and country, who had all of a sudden become ‘available’ for an interaction and so many things to reveal and stories to tell.

For twenty minutes, I existed in a world between reality, alternative reality and a precursor of virtual reality; a 2D and a 3D set altogether; past and present in the same picture, no longer separated by the boundaries of time and space.

While this wasn’t a Virtual Reality (VR) experience and there was no Oculus Rift to immerse me in a new dimension, the visit got me thinking again about the potential of actual VR to bring different and distant cultures, realms, times, and worlds to life. Educate, foster empathy and understanding towards that which is not directly connected or related to us; preserve the past; support knowledge and learning, so that we don’t forget who we are and where we come from.

In the realm of branding, VR is a way of enhancing the brand experience and immersing consumers in an extension of it. In the realm of culture and history, VR is a way of bringing the past to life as if it happened only yesterday and create a memorable, mind-blowing and powerful experience. It is an opportunity for every institution in the world that deals with culture, heritage and history (e.g. museums, world-heritage sites, etc.) to multi-dimensionalize their impact, interactivity, span, and work and for consumers to be blown away.

To experience something of the sort, visit Petra through Google Cardboard.