#VR for Everybody? >> Initial thoughts on crowdfunding digital humanities

I am on a team in the midst of running a crowdfunding campaign at Experiment.com. I can’t say much about whether it will work — I’ll have to let you know after the campaign — but I can tell you why it’s happening!

When I tell people we’re running a crowdfunding campaign for our digital humanities (DH) project, their first question, before even asking about my project, is “why?” Why would you fundraise? It’s a good question: I’m a tenured professor at a “research college,” and I direct a digital humanities program at Five Colleges. What you should hear in that declaration is you have affiliations; you have access. But it is precisely because of this access and affiliation that I also have to think about what it means to not have it. Whether I admit it or not, I have joined the gatekeeping class.

How can we think differently about funding digital work? There are many ways of thinking about this, from modeling digital humanities projects after different kinds of workers’ co-operatives, to thinking about the place of a bartering economy. But, for this round of questioning, we’re looking at crowdfunding.

When I was approached with the idea of running a crowdfunding campaign, I was intrigued. I had a “virtual reality for virtually everybody” (ViRVE) project that I knew would be difficult to fit into most extant DH funding opportunities. You may have heard that virtual reality is “the next big thing.” But that is a mainly a market question, and our group knows that we can’t really make that call. We can, however, see two things:

  1. That VR has a variety of potentially exciting applications for all kinds of creative and scholarly people,
  2. A great majority of the VR industry is tilted toward consumption, rather than toward creation, which makes the technologies seem especially inaccessible.

The purpose of ViRVE, then, would be to investigate low cost ways of producing genuinely engaging VR experiences, using only low cost and free apps, paired with smartphones. We’ve produced a list of projects that we thought would appeal to a variety of interests, and each project carries a unique set of challenges. (Contributors to our campaign vote on which project we blueprint first!) In working through those challenges, we would be able to produce really useful how to’s (we hope!) and share those with anyone who wants to engage their own project:

We call this work “pathfinding,” and it involves helping navigate crowded fields. On much of the commercial side, the VR world is not deeply interested in DIY approaches and, on the DIY side, folk interested in VR-making must navigate a dizzying array of ideas, options, hypotheses, and hot takes. Our project helps people learn to follow paths through all that “stuff,” and also to make their own paths. We do this by documenting and disseminating our own VR experimentation in multiple and, hopefully, reasonably accessible ways.

But, in thinking about funding, a small project like ViRVE falls into a strange space. We want to introduce our peers and communities to a new technology, and in so doing also demonstrate that the kinds of projects we want to make can be made in the ways we imagine — proof of concept. We think of this work as a kind of public humanities. We’re not quite educational and inasmuch as we are educational, we are tilted as much to community groups and parents as we are to students in college classrooms. We’re “making things,” but with no grander purpose than to spark other people’s imaginations regarding what they themselves can make.

In order to do this, ViRVE needs mobile technology that we can use both to produce the VR and also to share it. You really can’t talk to people about VR without letting them experience it. It is a fundamentally embodied experience, which means we have to be able to lend out demo units. Many institutions, including my own, restrict mobile tech purchases, because they fall into the category of “personal tech.”

So we’re trying out crowdfunding, in hopes that this might offer us a way to think about work that either falls outside of extant funding structures, and also to think about what options might be available for people who don’t have access to institutionally backed funding machines, nor the startup capacity needed to produce small proof of concept endeavors that help open doors to other opportunities.

We’ll report back on our experience working with Experiment.com. In the meantime, lol, fund us! And to learn more, you can check out this story, that appeared on New England Public Radio.