Damien McDuffie has always seen himself as an archivist—a keeper of the legacy, tales, and photographs of his family, as well as Black people in Oakland and beyond.
Over the years, he’s worked as a freelance journalist, ran brand strategy for the culture collective Wine & Bowties, and facilitated the preservation of historical archives for the Huey P. Newton Foundation about the Black Panthers. McDuffie is now working on a more innovative way to document culture and history: augmented reality.
AR is an interactive experience that superimposes images on your view of a real-world environment. The technology has taken off in a variety of use cases, whether that’s letting you try on a pair of glasses virtually or placing furniture onto a picture of your living room to see how it would look in real life. In McDuffie’s case, he wants to use AR to bring historical archives about Black culture to life.
His new project, the Black Terminus AR app, officially launched a few weeks ago. It allows users to see curated videos on top of specific murals throughout the city that he’s teamed up with local artists to work on. Last weekend, McDuffie and fellow artists unveiled the largest augmented reality mural on the west coast at 7th Street and Washington, right across the street from the Oakland Police Department. The 30 foot wall-to-wall mural is the work of artists Timothy B., Kiss My Black Arts, and Mali Byers honoring Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, founders of the Black Panther Party. People can see video content and graphics when they download the app, open it and point it to the mural.
“The idea is for us to augment six of the Black Panther murals across the city, and then be able to commission additional murals to be augmented as well,” he said. “From there, we’ll connect the stories between each.”
McDuffie’s interest in preserving culture started when he helped his grandmother and aunts digitize family records, including boxes of photos. Then when he got access to physical archives not available to the general public through the Huey P. Newton Foundation, his passion for bringing history to life was renewed.
“I really believe in museums as being a place for the people. And it doesn’t really make sense to have so many archives when nobody can really access them,” McDuffie said.
In 2019, McDuffie started digging for ways to help the community access archives that might not be in history books, or that had a hefty price tag to view them. He began traveling domestically, visiting museums, and talking to other artists. Before the pandemic, he also got the chance to travel internationally to Tokyo and Thailand, where he discovered augmented reality museums.
At the same time, augmented reality started to gain traction in Oakland. Back in 2017, Olivia Cueva, former creative director of the David E. Glover Emerging Technology Center located in deep East Oakland, created an app to virtually restore the mural painted honoring Gary King, Jr, who was killed by an Oakland police officer in 2007. BART removed the physical mural, which was painted on a column supporting the train tracks above Martin Luther King Jr. Way, where King was killed, so Cueva created an app for people to see the mural on their phones.
McDuffie said these experiences helped him realize augmented reality is the future of documenting history and educating the public. “This is a way to preserve stories,” he said. “My mind immediately goes to education: How can the youth benefit from this?”
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, McDuffie found the time needed to develop his own app.
In July, McDuffie’s work was included in the Story Windows exhibit along Broadway and Telegraph Avenue in downtown Oakland. McDuffie and Calvin Williams of Wakanda Dream Lab, a collective of activists, artists, and fans for Black Liberation, both had augmented reality displays. Currently, Williams also has an AR display at the Oakland Museum: Mothership: Voyage Into Afrofuturism.
For McDuffie’s installation at the Story Windows exhibit, he used the app Artivive, founded in 2017 in Vienna, Austria. However, he knew that this app wouldn’t serve his vision of uplifting Black and people of color experiences in the ways he wanted.
“I realized then that there was no way that Artivive or any other Eastern European application would ever have access to the people whose stories we need to preserve,” he said. “Or even go after them to engage with them.”
Last summer, after the social justice uprisings responding to the killing of George Floyd, McDuffie began reading more about augmented reality and what it would take for him to create his own app. Coincidentally, he was also reading Huey P. Newton’s writing about “community control of technology,” a topic Newton wrote about back in the 1970s.
“The concept is that technology has such an impact on people’s lives, and they don’t even have a choice of how it’s used,” he said, using the example of 3D printing technology. “If the 3D technology to print homes was in the hands of homeless people, we wouldn’t have homelessness.”
McDuffie began watching YouTube to learn how to create an augmented reality app, watching videos from all over the world, including Australia, India, and Mexico. He learned the basics: how to code, export the app to your phone, upload to the Apple and Google Play store, and other technicalities. He also discovered the tech companies he needed to work with to make the app a reality.
McDuffie spent $20,000 of his own savings to develop the Black Terminus AR app. He also received $21,000 in grants through the tech company Unity and another grant from the Oakland Black Business Fund.
And now with the mural at the corner of 7th and Washington, he is setting his lofty goals. He sees Black Terminus as a digital venue that will continue to archive stories in Oakland and beyond. “My big vision is to create the AR museum for the people where you’ll be able to open your camera in any city that you’re in and get a guided tour about the history of the city,” he said.
McDuffie also wants to partner with artists across disciplines to use augmented reality to help local businesses, entrepreneurs, musicians, and other artists.
“There are so many possibilities, and it’s gonna take a lot of teaching,” he said. “I’m just trying to get enough people to know more about it.”
“What I’m trying to do is create monuments out of neighborhoods, so historic Black neighborhoods will be able to build digital monuments to what’s around us,” he said. “The conversation has been about tearing down old monuments. But it’s also: What are we replacing them with?”
Correction: Olivia Cueva created her app in 2017, and she’s the former creative director of the David E. Glover Emerging Technology Center.