When creators carefully tread the line between empathy and trauma, immersive technology can be a powerful tool for educating audiences about history.
On August 6, 1945, Shigeru Orimen left his rural home near Itsukaichi-cho for Hiroshima, where he was one of nearly 27,000 students working to prepare the city for impending American air raids. For lunch that day, he brought soybeans, French fries, and daikon strips.
When the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima at 8:16 a.m., Shigeru was among the approximately 7,200 students who died. Three days later, his mother Shigeko identified his body using her lunch box; the food inside turned to charcoal, but the outside remained intact.
Today, his lunch box and Shigeko’s testimony are part of the archives of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The object and its history left a haunting impression on filmmakers Saschka Unseld and Gabo Arora, who co-directed a new virtual reality experience titled The day the world changed. Created in partnership with Nobel Media to commemorate the work of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize), the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week.
The immersive experience begins with an explanation of the genesis, development and deployment of the atomic bomb, then moves into a second chapter focused on the consequences of the attack. The public can walk through the city ruins and examine artifacts from the bombing, including Shigeru’s lunch box. In the final chapter, the play returns to the present, describing the frantic race to create new atomic weapons and the continuing threat of nuclear war.
It’s not the only work at Tribeca focusing on difficult topics: Among the festival’s 34 immersive titles are works that address the legacy of racism, the threat of climate change, AIDS, and the current crisis in Syria. This is also not the first virtual reality installation to receive public praise. Last November, filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu received the Oscar at the Academy Governor’s Awards for his virtual reality installation MEAT and SANDthat captures the experience of migrants crossing the border between the United States and Mexico.
The day the world changed It differs from these installations in one fundamental way: much of the material already exists in archival form. Video testimonies and irradiated relics from the day of devastation come from the museum’s archives and photogrammetry (creating 3D models from photographs) has enabled digital reproduction of surviving sites. In this sense, the work shares more with the interpretive projects carried out by traditional documentary filmmakers and historians than with the fantastic or gamified recreations more associated with virtual reality.
What sets it apart, Arora and Unseld say, is that the narrative possibilities offered by immersive technologies allow viewers to experience previously inaccessible places, for example the interior of the Atomic Dome, the UNESCO world heritage site located just below the explosion of the bomb that was fired. it remains intact and relates to the existing artifacts in a more visceral way.
The future is exciting, although there is some tension given the national debate about the dangers of technological manipulation. “You have to be very careful,” says Arora. “We think it’s important to understand the grammar of virtual reality and not just rely on a simple way to horrify people. Because it doesn’t last.
But what exactly makes a visual medium immersive? This question captivated one of the pioneers of virtual reality, Morton Heilig. In 1962, he developed the Sensorama, a mechanical device that looked like a combination of an arcade game and a tonometer. The Sensorama included a reclining chair and full stereo sound, projected 3D images and even played aromas during short films.
Although the project never received commercial funding, Heilig remains fascinated by the possibilities of new technologies. In 1992, five years before his death, he published a manifesto detailing this new “cinema of the future.” He argued that advances in magnetic tape would enable the kind of dramatic engagement advertised by Sensorama with greater clarity and at much lower cost. “Open your eyes, listen, smell and feel: feel the world in all its magnificent colors, depths, sounds, smells and textures,” he proclaimed. “This is the cinema of the future!”
For Heilig, cinema was no longer just a visual medium, but an “art of consciousness”, and the future of cinema lay not only in its ability to convey lucid and realistic experiences, but also to capture nature and history in its most captivating dimensions. .
The spiritualism expressed by Heilig took a particularly dystopian form a few years later in the novel by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Do androids dream about electric sheep? In the book’s post-apocalyptic world, devoid of meaning and true connection, survivors longing for purpose and community follow a character named Wilbur Mercer. Using an “empathy box,” the acolytes join Mercer on an endless climb up a barren mountain while he is stoned by unseen enemies. Like self-flagellation, the exercise takes on a reverential dimension among followers. As one explains: “This is how you touch other humans, this is how you stop being alone. »
In a context where technology evangelists are touting virtual reality as the “ultimate empathy machine,” Dick’s warning still seems remarkably accurate. With cutting-edge technologies promising to disrupt our sense of belonging, the line between compassion and trauma is becoming porous. These anxieties manifest themselves in The day the world changed, a work with a clear message – the abolition of nuclear weapons – whose creators, however, affirm that they have no interest in selling an ideology.
“You don’t want to impose something on anyone,” Unseld says. “But we shouldn’t abandon them completely either. You want to guide them in a way that is very respectful of their own pace and their own humanity.
Unseld says that because virtual reality lends itself to stories about “our spirituality,” “our collective guilt,” “our collective responsibility,” and “our collective capacity for change,” creators must reflect on the lives and experiences of their audience and find ways to communicate a message while leaving options open. In this sense, it works better as a provocation than as a controversy, a story that invites awareness without forcing the viewer to put on a specific pair of shoes.
Creators using these immersive media could draw inspiration from a surprising handbook: that of historians. Sure, their digital recreations may not have the polish of Hollywood images, but their focus on how to create meaningful engagement is certainly applicable. And as Lisa Snyder, an architectural historian at the UCLA Institute for Digital Research and Education, points out, vivid images aren’t always what motivates people intellectually.
“When people see photorealistic spaces, they accept it,” he says. “It’s harder for people to say, ‘Oh, I should be critical of this.’”
Snyder has spent more than 20 years working on what she calls “desktop virtual reality.” Basically, she creates incredibly accurate models of historical sites, from Carnac to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, that educators use for classroom exercises and museum audiences explore on guided tours. Her work is a painstaking process that requires the same dedication as traditional historians. She meticulously determines dimensions using construction guides and archaeological evidence, and creates textures and color palettes using contemporary sources. For every hour she models, she says she spends five hours researching.
“I’m not interested in someone using this visualization to spin the contraption,” she says. “I want something that people live and experience.”
Although the work of historians may seem distant at first glance, it ultimately points to the same end goal: providing the public with the space to learn, discover, and interact with the past. Technology can change the contours of this engagement, explains Steven Mintz, a digital historian and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, but seeing is not enough.
“What the story should be is the interaction with the material,” he says. “The analysis you do is what makes it meaningful.”
As immersive technologies continue to delve into the past to shape attitudes in the present, Mintz says there is a need to avoid mere spectacle. But he is optimistic about the future, especially if academics and artists can find ways to work together with the support of foundations and cultural institutions. And as Arora and Unseld point out, new features can only enhance, not replace, the human element of stories, even if immersive technologies can affect audiences with a power that other forms of media struggle to achieve.
“I think there’s something about virtual reality that makes you feel intrinsically,” Unseld says. “Because you somehow shed your body and become a spirit, virtual reality speaks to your soul.”