Democratizing VR for More Livable Cities

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Open Signal invites us to explore the history and possible futures of city planning through virtual reality demos and exhibitions in Democratizing VR for More Livable Cities. In this event, technology, community experts, design professionals, and media resources are brought together to demystify VR.

We caught up with Open Signal board member and event creator, Karim Hassanein, to chat about VR’s role in the future of design. He said, “This is the first step towards enabling more people to explore how these tools can increase civic engagement in the decision-making processes that don’t always address all citizens in an equitable manner.”

Karim, who had been heavily involved in Bora Architects’ Design Week Portland event last year, was approached by Open Signal staff about ways they could collaborate this year. Karim grew up mostly in Cairo, Egypt, moved to Oregon to study landscape architecture in 2007, and took on a marketing role at Bora in 2015. When the Egyptian revolution started in 2011, he began focusing on the ways people were using virtual spaces to organize and engage in civic discourse when physical spaces were restricted. Politics, placemaking, and communications are inextricably intertwined, and Karim’s passion is supporting the people and organizations who are tearing down barriers to civic engagement in those spheres.

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Through this inspiration, the event concept took form, and he started working with Liz Rhodes, a fellow board member, and Matt Henderson, a primary advisor and learning resource for VR at Open Signal. Karim said, “The work that architects do is all about physical and virtual space, listening to our clients’ stories and needs and creating physical environments that embody those things. It’s also about communication and how we use various media to explain how our designs are responsive.“

Karim continued, “For most non-designer folks, VR is still seen as scary, or super abstract and irrelevant to their lives. Design professionals will be increasingly challenged to create immersive experiences as a means of conveying concepts, which makes it even more necessary to educate people on the real-world processes that are required to manifest those possibilities.” Open Signal is currently experimenting with new production techniques enabled by VR hardware and game engine software. This work is allowing for new modes of media creation that have rarely been affordable in a conventional studio environment and have been unavailable to the general public.

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Guests will be interacting with the two concurrent VR exhibits, Vanport Mosaic and Demo the Future, taking place in Open Signal’s production studios (yes, there are green screens, and yes, they will come into play). “We know not everyone wants to put on a headset and jump into a new world,” Karim said. “So folks who just want to watch or ask questions will be able to do that.” Exhibits will be broadcast into the social spaces outside the studios and followed by a panel discussion. Guests can grab a beverage or some pizza, mingle in a more relaxed atmosphere, and see what’s going on in both exhibits, even if they don’t want to get hands-on.

While you’re there, be sure to meet the design professionals, architects and planners, VR/AR/XR professionals and enthusiasts, local artists and activists, Open Signal staff, and community leaders in attendance. Open Signal is already the kind of place where all these folks intersect, so this event is just turning up the volume.