High-tech Chicago exhibit puts visitors eye-to-eye with MLK

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In this Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 photo, a visitor experiences "The March" virtual reality exhibit at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago ahead of the project's launch. The exhibit captures the 1963 March on Washington during which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech. (AP Photo/Noreen Nasir)

CHICAGO, Ill. – Imagine being so close to Martin Luther King Jr. as he gives one of the world's most famous speeches that you notice the creases in his face and then realize the late civil rights leader is looking you square in the eye.

That's the intense personal moment organizers are striving for with a one-of-a-kind virtual reality exhibit opening Friday at Chicago's DuSable Museum of African American History. Called “The March," it captures the 1963 March on Washington during which King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream" address.

“The speech is so well known and the ways people are used to seeing it is kind of archival, grainy two-dimensional film,” said Mia Tramz, an editorial director of immersive experiences at TIME, which helped create the project. “By being able to see it with your own two eyes and feel like you're standing there, you not only get the message of the words, but the message of the energy that he put behind those words.”

The project has the rare full backing from King's estate, which fiercely guards his likeness and speeches. The high-tech effort took years of research on King's gestures and expressions, as well as interviews with attendees.

Creators said it was inspired by an archive image of King giving a different speech on the National Mall, shot from his perspective looking out. TIME, which features King in a March issue, worked with companies including a production studio run by actress Viola Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon. Davis narrates part of the project.

Visitors start in an dark empty room with audio of people involved in key events leading up to the march. One is Hank Thomas, who was a Freedom Rider — activists who protested segregation by sitting in bus seats reserved for whites and who experienced violence and jail.

After that, attendees are outfitted with heavy virtual reality headsets that block out the outside world and replace it with three-dimensional glimpses of Aug. 28, 1963, on the National Mall. In what sometimes looks like a video game, visitors march along Constitution Avenue and then stand in the crowd of some 250,000.

Then the scenery changes again. Visitors find themselves standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and an arm's length from King, whose hand gestures and facial expressions are brought to life. After delivering part of the speech, he walks by and locks eyes, a moment creators say is unparalleled.