By Anne Miller, Contributor
Kai Frazier sold her house and her car, and moved across country—from the nation’s capital to Oakland, California—on a virtual reality (VR) mission.
As a teacher, Frazier wrangled students whose grade-school classroom might be 30 minutes from downtown Washington, D.C, but they had never seen the Smithsonian museums. That’s what happens in low-income school districts, Frazier explains, where neither schools nor families have money to pay for buses and lunches, and parents can’t afford to take time off work to chaperone.
She then worked in the digital education team at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., and had an epiphany: The museum used virtual reality films to immerse viewers in the stories of refugees and others. What if similar films could offer her former students a chance to interact with worlds outside of their classrooms?
“A student cannot aspire to something if they don’t know it exists,” Frazier says. “The only problem is that these experiences don’t exist yet.”
Her business seeks to fill that gap.
“Virtual reality is an empathy machine—this is what it feels like to be here…for students like mine, we didn’t need an empathy machine. We needed an access machine.”
—Kai Frazier, Founder of Curated x Kai
“Virtual reality is an empathy machine—this is what it feels like to be here, this is what it feels like to be a Syrian refugee,” Frazier says. “But for students like mine, we didn’t need an empathy machine. We needed an access machine.”
Frazier decamped to California for proximity to the tech world and investors and founded Curated x Kai, which creates short VR films and sells relatively inexpensive VR viewers, with the goal of reaching classrooms. The films are free to schools, and include lessons teachers can incorporate into the classroom. She hopes to make her money by selling the viewers, and also having firms engage her to make films.
But her real goal is to introduce students to new worlds.
A World She Knows
Frazier was one of these kids herself. By high school, she was homeless and a drop-out risk.
“A couple teachers stuck their necks out for me,” she says. “I had somebody who took me in and gave me a $500 bill so I could go to school. I know firsthand what it means if a child is exposed.”
After teaching, Frazier took a job at the Holocaust Museum and befriended photographers and videographers, trailing them while they worked. She learned to make storyboards, to shoot with intention and an eye on the story, and to edit video. She learned to use a camera and lenses. She Googled other technical aspects.
Frazier partnered with a coworker, and on her birthday, in November 2017, they launched a website that offered insider tips on museum access, such as when visitors could get into the National Museum of African American History and Culture without needing hard-to-obtain advance passes. Then she realized that the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was approaching, and no one had filmed his monument in Washington, D.C., for a VR experience. On Christmas Day, Frazier did it herself. About six months later, she wanted to film the official portraits of President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama, so she reached out to Amy Sherald, the artist of the First Lady’s portrait, who agreed to launch a giveaway for VR viewers with her.
“That changed everything for us,” she says.
By November 2018, they had a full catalogue of short VR films online.
Last month, at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, Curated x Kai was the overwhelming winner in a business pitch competition attended by more than 900 people, walking away with funding and interest from others in the audience. The competition, known as Black Girl Ventures, is the brainchild of business coach Shelly Bell, who was so impressed by Frazier’s story that she joined her advisory board.
“It’s a very smart way to break it down,” Bell says of Frazier’s business and pitch about VR. “On top of the fact that she’s creating access through VR, not only the access through what she’s doing, but access in terms of the way people are using VR.”
A View of the Future
Representation matters, Frazier says. So, if a hand appears in her films, for example, she makes sure that hand belongs to someone of color, so students don’t see their access guided by a white person.
She films with an Insta360, a relatively cheap camera, but a small one that allows her access to creative viewpoints. She’s working with UC Berkeley and its CRISPR machine, which can cut and splice DNA. Her camera can move all around the machine for almost impossible-to-get views.
Frazier sells headsets that run about $40, which means they’re not the most state-of-the-art, but she doesn’t shoot in the highest resolution, in part because many schools don’t have the bandwidth for the best quality or money to replace expensive headsets.
The Challenge of Tech in Schools
Dr. Carolina Cruz-Neira, the director of the Emerging Analytics Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, specializes in VR (hear her recent podcast here). “There’s a wide range of areas where VR brings a lot of power,” she says. “For students, it’s difficult to understand and appreciate something that’s maybe 1,000 or 2,000 years old. Giving them some virtual trips to a historical location where they see something—where it’s dark or it’s light, where it has a lot of architectural details—it brings them there. They can visit some interesting Asian temple. That’s very powerful.”
Still, Cruz-Neira worries that projects bringing individual viewers into classrooms opens up potential for problems. Technology can fail, equipment can break, and if there’s only one or two viewers among 30 kids, then classroom management can be a challenge, she says. Kids can switch to other apps without a teacher knowing, or focus on areas of the VR experience that don’t pertain to the lesson.
But, she says, “like any new technology, it might take many years for us to understand what the real value is.” She believes, “we also need to look around not just at the cool technology, but the day-to-day opportunities for the teachers to actually be teachers.”
Still, the potential in VR—and figuring out what the future of the technology holds—has driven not just Frazier but some of her investors. For instance, Curated x Kai is working with Mozilla, the browser company, to develop a better, low-cost viewer for students.
Carving a real business out of the virtual world isn’t easy, Frazier says. Her kitchen table teams with business books. She has no savings or family money to tap into. Regardless, she believes that, “if you keep showing up day in and day out … little by little, the puzzle pieces start to come together.”