You turn your head to the sky and see a fleet of Nazi bombers overhead. The raid sirens blare in your ears. There's nowhere to hide in London's Trafalgar Square—there are soldiers behind you and nurses beside them—ready to treat the soon-to-be-wounded. A single bomb crashes in the middle of the square. The deafening roar passes, and you're left with a high-pitched ringing from simulated ear damage until you take off your VR headset.
VR experiences that recreate historical events are becoming more popular in classrooms and at historic sites across the globe. And some creators are hoping they can amplify textbook accounts with a deeper, more empathetic look at some of our most critical moments.
Yigit Yigiter, CEO of TimeLooper, which made the Trafalgar Square recreation, said he and his team relied on World War II historians when recreating Trafalgar Square in 1940. They pulled data on the exact location where a bomb was dropped, images of British soldiers' uniforms and estimates on the number of searchlights and Nazi planes overhead that night.
Historical events involving conflict, like the Great Fire of London, and peace-time events, like George Washington's speeches, take intense work alongside historians, archivists, National Park Service staff for US projects and other experts, Yigiter said. "Our premise is what would you see if you could time travel to that time at that location, so you can feel like you're in the moment."
These moments of simulated danger, like experiencing a bomb exploding in London in 1940, can push the viewer into feeling the emotional weight of those moments. "VR is a very emotionally evocative medium," said Albert "Skip" Rizzo, director of Medical Virtual Reality at University of Southern California. "Until you're really in that scene, I don't know if you have Grade A empathy."
More modern examples, like VR experience of a bombing in Aleppo, Syria, help viewers feel—just for a moment—the horrors of war. "I think we're sort of inoculated to seeing news reports," said Rizzo, a research professor of psychiatry. "Of course everyone sees a news report about a refugee situation … and you feel bad, but it's not the same as having the experience of being in that environment"
Being able to use VR to experience a monument or moment in history in one's classroom or at the site itself helps history come alive, especially when recreating nations and cultures that no longer exist, said Baptiste Greve, CEO of Unimersiv, which hosts VR experiences of ancient Rome.
Greve said middle schools and high schools from the US, Canada and even Bahrain want to send their children on field trips to places like the the Acropolis of Athens, and VR makes that cheaper than ever. Students can see places before they became ruins, or they can take impossible field trips, like to the deck of the Titanic en route to the US.
TimeLooper, meanwhile, uses costumed actors on a green screen and builds environments onto that green screen. Yigiter said they use sound engineers to add mumbled conversation in the area's native language and natural ambient noises—coins if there's a market scene, crackling flames for the Great Fire of London.
But the two most important aspects are using culturally accurate actors—"When we're doing Angkor Wat, for example, we need to use Cambodians"—and getting as close of an expert consensus as possible on uncertain architectural details.
Yigiter said virtual reality of historical places have a lot of potential, but viewers must be wary of potential unintentional mistakes, particularly with ancient scenes that were never photographed.
"There has been a lot of research that has been done and there are a lot of drawings by researchers interpreting," he said of scenes like ancient Ephesus. "No one knows the truth. These are only interpretations."
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