Shockingly real Martin Luther King Jr created for virtual reality experience

The latest issue of Time Magazine features a familiar face. 

Martin Luther King Jr. has graced the magazine’s cover, multiple times. But what’s remarkable about the current cover is the fact that MLK was reproduced not with a camera, but with a computer.                

The image comes from a new virtual reality experience that opens in Chicago at the Dusable Museum of African American History on February 28.                

In 1963, a quarter of a million people marched on Washington and witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, now dubbed, “I have a Dream.”   

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Most of us, have seen the speech by watching black and white newsreel footage.  But now, “The March” a groundbreaking, immersive virtual reality experience, allows you to go back in time.                

Los Angeles companies - VALIS Studios and Digital Domain worked with Time Studios and the King Estate to bring Dr. King to life.               

It was a three-year process. 

The first year, VALIS Studio’s Peter Martin says, was spent convincing the King estate the civil rights icon could be recreated in a way that honors him, not detracts from his legacy. 

“To be honest, we had to wait for the technology to get good enough; which is right now, to represent the performance of this kind.”               

Perhaps you’ve seen the Tupac hologram at Coachella, or the movie magic of Benjamin Button, that’s the work of Digital Domain.               

Martin says, as good as those were, “There have been problems in terms of realism.” Its what’s called the uncanny valley.  The human eye can easily detect when something is not quite right. 

Video of the virtual Martin Luther King is shockingly real.         

“So,  then you can see his eyes.  He's essentially alive at this point.” Bringing Dr. King to life involved meticulous attention to detail, the man’s musculature, the imperfections in his complexion, the facial tics when he speaks, even the blood flow to his face. “When you’re animated, more blood flows to the face,” Peter told me. 

“The biggest advance is we’re using AI. So we’re using machine learning technology techniques which essentially documents every piece of an archive of Dr. King and checks that against the performance in the virtual character and makes slight adjustments.”           

The team needed two body doubles to recreate the virtual MLK. One man had a similar shaped head and body. The other man is the only actor sanctioned by the King estate to perform the “I have a dream” speech. 

Motion capture suit and headgear map the figure and the movements.                 

“The March” is a 30-minute presentation that includes a virtual walk along Constitution Ave. 

Don the VR goggles and you can see the thousands that marched along the Washington Mall, headed to the Lincoln Memorial. “You end up at the back of the reflecting pool and you hear Phillip Randolph introducing Dr. King. 

Then you’re teleported to the front of the reflecting pool, you now see the Lincoln Memorial.  Still in a crowd. 

Dr. King’s speech begins. And, then we go into the slightly abstract, magic realist setting, where you are right in front of Dr. King, giving the speech, the crowd disappears, everyone is represented by a point of light.  

And, you have an intimate, hopefully, powerful experience where he delivers the last five minutes of the speech.”        

“The March” will be at the Dusable Museum through November. It will then become a traveling exhibit. With Viola Davis and Julius Tennon as executive producers, “The March” will no doubt will make it  to Los Angeles.