A Virtual Cotton Club Rises, With an Open-Source Engine


The virtual-life company Utherverse is recreating the Harlem of the 1920s for Bryan Carter, a U. of Arizona professor.

Second Life, the virtual world many professors use for experiential learning, is no longer big enough for one University of Arizona professor.

Bryan Carter, an assistant professor of Africana studies, has been using the virtual world to teach students about the Harlem Renaissance since 2005. But as technology has advanced, Mr. Carter has been looking to evolve his virtual city as well. Now the virtual-life company Utherverse is building a new digital replica of Harlem during the 1920s, based on a street grid Mr. Carter has provided. The company is relying on the Unity engine, a cross-platform game engine that employs open graphics standards.

It’s “a huge step up” from Second Life, Mr. Carter said in an e-mail.

While Second Life limits the number of avatars that can visit the old Virtual Harlem at the same time, the new technology allows for unlimited visitors. Additionally, everything built in Second Life is proprietary, and is therefore stuck in Second Life. Since the Unity engine is based entirely on open standards, elements from the new Virtual Harlem can be used in other graphic or gaming engines, which is “liberating,” Mr. Carter said. The graphics are also crisper.

The project is among Utherverse’s first steps into the academic realm. The company has previously focused on the development of a virtual social world for adults, although it also offers services like UtherConvention, which hosts virtual conventions for businesses. Some classes have already been conducted in Utherverse’s virtual world, including foreign-language courses and classes on decorating and clothing design, said Anna Lee, Utherverse’s chief business-development officer.

So far, Utherverse developers have built one of the Harlem Renaissance’s main venues, the Cotton Club—where performers like Fats Waller and Billie Holiday rose to fame—and are now building the entire street on which the club stands. Ms. Lee said that while everything in Virtual Harlem will be built to scale, street lengths will be shortened and some nondescript buildings will be cut to make it easier for avatars to get from landmark to landmark.

Mr. Carter hopes to continue the success he’s had previously with students involved in his Virtual Harlem project, which began in 1997. He once, for example, had a group of students reconstruct a museum for the Harlem Hellfighters, an African-American infantry regiment during World War I. The museum really “brought the readings to life,” he said.

“In addition to consuming art and music and reading literature, students will actually be taking on the persona of not only everyday citizens within that environment but also performing role plays of more historic figures,” he said. “It gives students a chance to experience things that they’re learning.”

Utherverse will eventually build a virtual Montmartre for French colleagues of Mr. Carter’s whose specialty is Paris in the 1920s. Like the new Virtual Harlem, it will offer “a feeling of ‘Yes, I am walking through Paris,’” Ms. Lee said.

“It’s an enhanced form of learning,” she added. “You get to fully immerse yourself virtually into a historical setting and experience what life could have been like.”

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