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A Conversation with Idris Brewster

A Conversation with Idris Brewster

The responsible development of XR technology requires a diverse community of voices. To celebrate the limitless number of perspectives in the XR industry, the XR Association sat down with Idris Brewster, Kinfolk’s co-founder and Executive Director. Kinfolk uses augmented reality to make Black and Brown narratives accessible to everyone around the world.

Below is an excerpt of the interview with Brewster, which has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity. 


1. Let’s first talk about your XR story. What sparked your interest in working on XR? 

When I think about my story, artistry, and storytelling were always key to who I was. In college, I was originally trying to do science, but I realized I was more interested in the interplay between the mind, technology, and computers. So I studied cognitive science and computer science in college. 

I was first introduced to XR through the Oculus. I was doing a senior thesis on emotional cognition within technology; I studied folks using XR and the emotions that it would conjure up in them. There, I found how [XR] was an interesting way to tell stories that are embodied and spatial, which I thought was extremely cool. 

I went to work at Google after college at a program called Google Code Next that provided a STEAM education for Black and Brown youth. We’d host after-school programs and weekend classes for middle and high schoolers around New York City. [Working at Google Code Next] was an opportunity for me to use both my art and technology skills. Learning computer science in college was pretty by the book and traditional; there wasn’t a lot of art or emotion involved. So with our students, we got to use art as an entryway into learning computer science. We got to do cool things like computational art, engineering, and music and taught kids how to create their own AR and VR experiences. That was my real introduction to using XR, especially with education.


2. At the beginning of your career, was there something that inspired you to launch your own artistry company? Could you see the future potential of this technology?

I was always interested in art and the creative uses of technology. After college, I thought that the pathway laid out for me was working at a big tech company to build tools that had no impact – and actually had a negative impact on my communities. I always wanted to find a way to do creative uses, where I wasn’t building for someone else but trying to find a way to build what I wanted to see in the world. And so that was where I started doing these XR storytelling projects on the side. From there, we got to a point where we had successfully organized demonstrations around Columbus Circle using augmented reality and gained a lot of traction by bringing our experience to gallery spaces, community spaces, and schools around New York City. 

I left Google after we were selected for a residency at NEW INC, an incubator out of the New Museum and Eyebeam. It was enough money for me to be like, alright, let’s leave Google behind right now and try to focus on building out Kinfolk. Through those residencies, I built a network of folks in the art and tech scene in New York and beyond that saw the vision and helped push us forward to new heights. After a couple of grants along the way, we were able to expand this further and further to where we are now.


3. What has been your proudest moment with KinFolk?

That’s a good one. It’s so hard to choose just one. My initial proudest moment was when I took the leap of faith to work on Kinfolk full-time at the New Museum. That was a really transformative time where I felt like, “alright, I’m really doing this.” 

Another proud moment is when we took our work in NYC to the national stage with the launch of our Kinfolk National Tour last year. We kicked off in Los Angeles, in collaboration with For Freedoms and Los Angeles Music Center, last November. It was super exciting to showcase the innovative ways we are able to connect local history from Black and Brown communities to public spaces, all while bringing the community together. This was something we weren’t able to do during the pandemic, so I am glad that we can now activate public spaces with our monuments.

The final proud moment is when the Museum of Modern Art reached out to Kinfolk to include us in their upcoming exhibition, “New York, New Publics.” It’s opening on February 19th and we’ll be showcasing three virtual monuments that are focused on Black History in New York. Being able to uplift this history and have that stage to spread the word about our work and the ways that AR can uplift our stories is a really proud moment for me.


4. Have you noticed any changes in the way that the industry has adapted its diversity and inclusion priorities since you first started?

There’s been a push to make more accessible headsets and hardware that are lower cost. Back in the early-mid 2010s, it would cost you around $1,000 to get a computer that could run VR experiences. That was really limiting, especially to folks who didn’t have the means to afford that price. That’s the biggest change back from when I started. The hardware has definitely become more affordable, and the technology has become more accessible to create but we’re still not there yet. 

The pandemic accelerated technology adoption 10 years into the future, and I’ve also seen a lot of vendors coming around to the value of what an immersive spatial experience can bring. I have seen a few more folks focus on storytelling and the possibilities of AR through impact, which is exciting. But there still needs to be more inroads to get more funding for Black and Brown creators. I feel like we have a long way to go there, and we need to prioritize getting people from Black and Brown communities into the space.  

The biggest developments, I would say, are incorporating other forms of technology into XR. The recent developments in AI have been really interesting, and provide a lot of possibilities for AR to adopt AI and make itself even more usable when it comes to user-generated content. This has always been an issue – how do we get users to create their own experiences without needing the technical knowledge of coding and 3D creation? 3D modeling is hard and requires a lot of skills. But AI has really started to break down the barriers in terms of users creating their own content. I’m really excited about the intersectionality of developing technologies.


5. What gets you up in the morning?  What keeps you inspired? What’s the one thing you’re going to lead the charge on in XR?

My family lineage really inspires me. The history of Black and Brown communities having to use their own resources and find ways to preserve their own history. A lot of times that’s through oral storytelling. Art and expression are the ways that I think a lot of our communities have preserved and documented our history and lived experiences, and it’s inspiring to me the ways that we have taken the preservation of our stories into our own hands. I see a lot of opportunity in the ways that technology can help bring our preservation traditions into the modern day, which continues to motivate me to do this work at the highest level. 

Art is also really inspiring to me, I pull often from the canon of Black and Brown visual artists for Kinfolk. Art has been an extremely impactful way for Kinfolk to tell our stories and educate people. Our monuments provide an emotional experience for folks, and we can build on these emotions to drive impact and spread awareness of our histories. We can shift perspectives through engaging stories and narratives you wouldn’t really experience otherwise. 


6. If you could give a younger person advice about getting into XR, what would that be?

Keep creating no matter what. I think a lot of people, including myself, have a perfectionist mindset when they’re approaching a project, specifically in art. Getting dirty and just getting started, getting the simplest version of what you want to see in the world, and then improving it from there, is really important. 

You will feel uncertain about the work you’re doing, you will feel not confident in your path, and you won’t be sure how the work is going to be received. Impostor syndrome is a real thing, especially for Black and Brown folks. I would tell that young person that these feelings are natural. You have to be comfortable pushing through uncertainty and doubt. If you just keep building, I think that’s when the moments of genius and innovation come through. It’s about the process. It’s not only in the planning and the thinking about it, it’s in the actual doing. 

Even if you don’t know exactly where you’re headed, just keep building. Time will let you know where you need to go. Patience is also a virtue. That’s what I would tell someone who’s younger and trying to get into the industry: just build, and get your hands dirty.


7. In your opinion, what does the XR industry need?

First of all, it needs more Black folks. It needs more women, transgender, and gender non-conforming folks in the space to build their experiences, tell their stories, and design this technology. It needs a nonprofit or impact lens to actually achieve [inclusive change.] If we continue to be solely focused on how we can monetize technology without putting the needs of our communities first, we’re just going to replicate the inequities in our society even when there is an opportunity to shift that. 

I will say that there’s a [negative] public perception around technology, XR, and the metaverse. The current state of these emerging industries is narrowing the vision for the public of what it could be, and the future of XR. The metaverse is not only limited to just virtual worlds that are somewhat cartoonish and headsets that close you off from your natural environment. That’s one form, but that’s not the only form. There are possibilities for technology where we can integrate nature with our reality; possibilities that are more social in nature and connective. I think we need to promote more of a vision that showcases technology that can bring us closer together, not technology that further isolates folks. 


8. What can the industry do to attract more gender diversity, racial diversity, and sexuality diversity into the talent pipeline?

First off, we need to fund more projects. I think more open calls and more funding into this space that is specifically focused on Black and Brown folks, women, transgender, and non-conforming folks is critical. Also providing more opportunities [to participate in XR.] We’re facing a digital divide gap in addition to an opportunity gap. Attacking that head-on is necessary.

I would also say highlighting projects, like Kinfolk, and other projects in the space that are built by folks in minority communities. This is necessary to inspire and attract other audiences. 

That’s why we’ve been going to schools. Having an education lens has been pretty important to attract folks and get them early on and say “you could do this, look at me. I’m doing it, you could do it too.” That’s been really inspiring. 


9. At XRA we like to say the XR industry has a limitless future. What does that mean to you?

For me, a limitless future means the possibilities are endless. We’re at a point in XR and tech where we can really shape the future of how this technology interacts with the world, and how people are using it over the next 5 to 10 years. 

I see technology as a type of clay, and whoever is building that technology has the power to mold how it comes to life in the world. Technology will always be an implementation of those persons’ values, morals, interests, and ideas. That is exactly why we need more Black, Brown, diverse voices in these rooms – so that we don’t fall into the trap of building technology that continues to be a playground for white cis people to achieve hyper-capitalistic dreams and visions and not achieve visions of equity. 

We really need to start thinking of how we can achieve a different vision.  A future where we can reap the benefits of our own contributions to the internet. Those are things we should think about when we speak about a limitless future. But we are at a point where we can achieve a lot of our wildest dreams with technology – we just need to navigate that with thought, care, and specific input from diverse voices.