Visit virtual reality at the African American Art & Culture Complex

Senaiya-watches-cousin-Zuri-explore-virtual-reality-at-African-American-Art-Culture-Complex-0220-2, Visit virtual reality at the African American Art & Culture Complex, Culture Currents
Senaiya watches her cousin Zuri explore virtual reality at the African American Art and Culture Complex.

by People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey

At a recent event that I attended at the African American Art and Culture Complex, I had my first experience with virtual reality. Virtual reality technician Shawn Alston has set up a virtual reality lab, where the participant gets a chance, in the 10-minute presentation, to grow from a seed to a tree. 

For people who have never experienced virtual reality, it is the evolution of video game technology. Instead of looking at a character on a screen, you become the character, aided by your virtual reality headgear. You are in the digital world and you can see the digital world in every direction you look including up and down. 

So in the “tree” app, you can see eggs in a nest underground when you are a seed. When you break the surface horizon, you see insects working on the forest floor. After a while when you grow into a tree, you start seeing birds flying around, among other things. 

Virtual reality is an important technology for us and our children to learn about, because it can be used for more than entertainment. As a matter of fact, the medical field has started to use virtual reality to make exploratory procedures less invasive. 

I wanted to interview Shawn Alston, a virtual reality technician, so that he could explain a little bit about the virtual reality experience at the African American Art and Culture Complex, at 762 Fulton in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco. If you are interested, you could participate for free on Mondays 12-2 p.m. and Thursdays 4-6 p.m. Ask for Daniel Johnson or Aminah James. [Considering the closure of many buildings and events because of coronavirus fears, however, call 415-922-2049 first to confirm. – ed.] 

M.O.I. JR: Where are you from? How did you get into virtual reality, with it being such a new technology?

Shawn Alston: My name is Shawn Alston and I am a military child. I was born in Albany, New York, and my mom married my stepdad when I was 7, and we started moving all over with every new post my dad had. So I like to say I am from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Kind of a nomad. 

I got into VR through a company called Here Be Dragons working as their camera vault manager and camera assistant. I helped to build custom VR camera rigs for the company’s shoots and assist with running the cameras on set. 

M.O.I. JR: What made you want to work with it? How do you see it being used in the future? 

Shawn Alston: What made me want to work in VR? Well, I wasn’t really looking to work with VR specifically; I was more into cameras, videography and photography. Virtual reality kind of just found its way into my life. 

I had a colleague of mine show me an app called Within at my going away party in NYC, when I was moving out to Los Angeles. Six or seven months later, I noticed an opening for that position and I was looking for more opportunities in LA and I got hired. I see it being used as a super social tool that will have to be monitored and checked for its addictiveness.

From the young to the old, every person was happy to and generally excited to experience virtual reality and “Tree” – while also freely opening up and telling me about their own experiences. 

M.O.I. JR: Can you tell me a little bit about how you are working with the African American Art and Culture Complex with your “Tree” project? What is the purpose?

Shawn Alston: I travel around with the company I work with New Reality Co., who are the creators of “Tree.” I set up the experience and train the staff how to run it. I am their technician. So when RGA sponsored the Lab they asked me to come and help with the installation. 

M.O.I. JR: Why did you decide to work with the AAACC with this project? Can you speak about the energy that you and the space generate working together? 

Shawn Alston: Like I said before, I didn’t really choose it; it kind of just found its way to me through working with New Reality Co. and Bayyina Black’s connection with them. She asked me to come and help with the installation for the Lab. After meeting the twins, co-directors Melonie and Melorra Green, and the staff as a whole, I was actually reenergized and inspired again. 

Every person that I crossed paths with during my time at AAACC had an amazing story and journey that they were on. From the young to the old, every person was happy to and generally excited to experience virtual reality and “Tree” – while also freely opening up and telling me about their own experiences. 

There are not many places you can find where you feel like you are home and welcomed from the very start. The AAACC is that type of place!

M.O.I. JR: How have people responded so far to the “Tree” experience? Children? Adults? Seniors? 

Shawn Alston: People have generally responded well to the experience. It’s great to see how people explore and take in everything that is happening to them. 

M.O.I. JR: What do you hope comes out of your current work in San Francisco? 

Shawn Alston: My hope is that more people of color will gain interest in things like VR, AR, coding and game design. I hope that more and more media is created by minorities who find some type of inspiration after going through the “Tree” experience. 

M.O.I. JR: Can you speak to the setup of your VR lab? Why is the plant ambiance, the smells and what you hear so important? How does it add to the experience of what you are seeing? 

Shawn Alston: Well, I can’t really speak about it too much, but what I can say is that it is part of the effect. Helps to make you feel like a tree when your ambiance is filled with nature.

M.O.I. JR: How could people try it out? When? For how long? 

Shawn Alston: If you want to check it out, look on the AAACC website for times and openings. It will be showing for the next few months. So there is time for plenty of people to get down there and check it out. 

M.O.I. JR: Do you create and work with other VR experiences other than the “tree” one? If so, please explain? 

Shawn Alston: I am a freelancer so I work with a bunch of projects and experiences. Most of the current ones are in development, so I can’t speak about them. I am always looking for new and exciting projects to work on.

M.O.I. JR: How could people keep up with your work? 

Shawn Alston: I can be reached at

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and filmmaker, can be reached at or on Facebook. And tune in to BlockReportTV on YouTube.