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Another View

Tuesday, October 24, 2017
Andrea Acevedo uses a VR system for research

Trinity student creates virtual reality experience exploring U.S. immigration detention centers

by Katie Middleton '18

Andrea Acevedo ’18 can walk through walls—virtually speaking.

Acevedo has created a virtual reality (VR) space called the Butterfly Project that allows viewers to explore inside a replica U.S. immigration detention center, putting them directly in the shoes of tens of thousands of migrants being held by America’s immigration system.

"Immigration is a hotly debated and complicated political topic,” Acevedo says. “When discussed, the narrative is told by politicians or non-immigrants, but the actual first-hand difficulties that migrants face are not always talked about.”

Acevedo partnered with communication professor Aaron Delwiche to create the VR experience, where viewers participate in an immersive simulation of immigration detention centers, revealing the difficulties and conditions that refugees encounter when entering the U.S. That is only part of the issue Acevedo and Delwiche are exploring.

Andrea Acevedo working with Aaron Delwich on a computer

"When immigrant stories are told, they tend to present audiences with the role of a far detached observer rather than a participant,” Delwiche says. “We are hoping to change this.”

Funded by the Mellon Initiative, the Butterfly Project uses the virtual reality platform High Fidelity to create virtual environments. These environments elevate the connection to the story by giving viewers an opportunity to step into a space and experience a location found inside an immigrant detention center. Modeling off images of real detention centers such as the South Texas Family Residential Center, Acevedo and Delwiche have created 3D virtual replicas of rooms in an existing U.S. immigration detention centers. The rooms are interactive areas where viewers can choose to walk inside holding cells, read and listen to first hand accounts from former detainees of the detention centers, and pick up items.

The view of a U.S. immigration detention center with thermal blankets used by immigrants.

One of the rooms created for this project was a small detention cell inside of the Eloy Detention Facility in Eloy, Ariz. “We found approximate dimensions of the rooms using objects, such as the bed, and people that were in the picture, as measuring tools and recreated an approximate 3D model,” Acevedo says. Before viewers can step inside, they are presented with a virtual board that shows them the 2D reference image and educational text with information on the location.

“I hope the 3D models serve as a supplement to traditional writing and journalism,” Acevedo says of the project.

A communication major with experience in gaming design, Acevedo is excited by the opportunity to use virtual reality software in a non-gaming context. “This summer has consisted of learning how to use programs I was unfamiliar with, like Maya, Substance Painter, and High Fidelity, and combine that with existing knowledge I acquired from my web design, graphic design, and game design classes,” Acevedo says. “It was very satisfying to see it all come together.”

This project evolved throughout the summer, and Acevedo hopes to continue building the narrative this year. In time, she wants her VR program to feature more than just a chance to tour a building.

“A big goal of mine is to tell the entirety of one person’s journey and give people the opportunity to follow that person and learn about how and why they undertook this journey,” she says. “There is so much more to the story.”

Katie Middleton is a senior at Trinity University majoring in Ancient Mediterranean Studies. She writes and edits for the Trinity Experiential Learning and Trinity Perspective blogs and is a member of Trinity’s Sigma Theta Tau social sorority.