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Stanford Students Use Mobile AR for Justice and Healing

“We are a group of Stanford students who believe in the power of augmented reality (AR) to reshape the way we remember history in public spaces.”

Trigger Warning - This article discusses college sexual assault and may not be suitable for all readers. 

By addressing the history and trauma connected to everyday spaces, Dear Visitor challenges the campus sexual assault epidemic with a site-specific AR activation—created by Stanford University students and alumni, Khoi Le (2020), Kyle Qian, and Hope Schroeder (2019). 

When something of note happens in a public place, we memorialize it with physical reminders: festivals, reenactments, statues, plaques. These acts celebrate or preserve our humanity in the face of whatever glorious or awful events that might have happened and binds them there for future generations.

And sometimes we get it wrong. We place something physical, and permanent in the space that encodes the wrong message. This message neither preserves or celebrates any humanity at all, but merely represents one group’s attempt to rewrite history or cover over their mistakes.

"We are using augmented reality to put Chanel Miller’s words on Stanford campus."

In 2015 a horrific event occurred on the campus of Stanford University. A sexual assault that would become known to the public through the many disturbing events that unfolded during the trial. It is all too common that the victims like Chanel Miller, who recently revealed she is "Emily Doe," are disregarded and the perpetrators come to be seen as the victims, even in the eyes of the law.

Chanel Miller's words at the contemplative garden.

A few months after the incident the university completely relandscaped the site and installed a “contemplative garden” in its place. As part of the university’s agreement with Ms. Miller, the university promised to include a plaque with a quote for reflection. Channel Miller provided two quotes, but both were rejected by the administration A plaque was never placed at the site.

In the end, all mentions of the notorious history were effectively removed, whitewashed. “With no reference to its significance, the garden is ignored and abused,” says the Dear Visitor team. According to the administration, Emily Doe's suggested statements were denied because their bluntness could be a trigger for other students who have experienced similar trauma.

“We believe that augmented reality can democratize public spaces by capturing the collective memory of a space.”

Unwilling to let these incidents fade into the dustbin of history and eager to pressure the administration to make right by Ms. Miller, the Dear Visitor team decided to change the reality of the situation. If the University wouldn’t stand up for the safety of students then they would. If the University wouldn't hear and believe the words of their fellow students then they would.

The team knew that augmented reality has the power to change perceptions and behaviors regarding a particular place. After securing grant funding from The Brown Institute for Media Innovation to explore its social justice project, the team got to work prototyping their experience.

Using Torch AR the team quickly designed an AR experience that placed the plaque with Miller’s words in the disused garden. Seeing the plaque and quote in the space immediately validated their creative direction, while sharing the AR content helped drive collaboration across the distributed team.

“Augmented reality belongs to everyone.”

Spaces can be designed to exclude certain voices and narratives. In the past, there was little anyone could do about it without some form of vandalism. With AR technology in our grasp, everyone now has a new and powerful tool in the fight for social justice.

Using an iPad to view the experience, visitors to the garden can listen in on student perspectives, hear Emily’s words read aloud, share their own thoughts with campus administration, and see the garden and plaques as Ms. Miller envisioned. 

Through the AR experience and related activations, Dear Visitor seeks to bring healing to the campus and elevate important conversations year-round. The Dear Visitor app’s launch will be held on September 27th in the garden. Find more info about the app and the launch event at https://dearvisitor.app


About the author

Matthew Clarke is an artist, writer, and entrepreneur currently located in Portland, Oregon. He was the Director of Business Development at Portland's original virtual reality (VR) production house and now runs his own company focused on designing extended reality (XR) applications and delivering them on the World Wide Web. You can find him on LinkedIn.