Virtually Over There

Experiencing War Through Virtual Reality in the Dan Carlin-led ‘War Remains’

I crouch involuntarily, not realizing I’m doing it at first as I trudge inside the trench. Soldier fire their rifles above me, virtual men doomed to die or survive World War I with virtual PTSD for the rest of their fake digital lives.

The booming begins, a pounding bass punishment that vibrates the floor and rattles my teeth. The narrator, “Hardcore History” podcaster Dan Carlin, explains that in the war the incessant sound drove people crazy. He asks me to imagine what it would be like to live with that nerve-jangling chaos, hour after hour, month after month. It only takes me 30 seconds to understand what he means.

“War Remains” is the machine holding me, a maze-like VR experience that recreate the battlefields and battle skies of World War I as a computer-animated history lesson. Unlike most virtual-reality experiences, it’s not physically static. You don’t sit in a chair, pivoting your head around to view the 360-degree visuals. You walk through “War Remains,” touching railing and pieces of cloth that the experience positions closely, though not quite perfectly, to what you’re seeing inside your VR goggles.

 

Wind blows against you in time with the experience. Moving through a space about the size of a small warehouse, the experience leads you through a simple path that, when paired with the headset, becomes dark, lantern-lit rooms, the bottom of an airship, or the crumbling, blood-soaked trenches of a European battlefield.

Any moment of peace found lasts no time at all. Enough to jangle the nerves, the experience cranks up gunshots and the rumble of a gigantic tank just above you.

The 12-minute experience costs $40 and is currently running through mid-October in downtown Austin, Texas, with plans to bring it to other cities.

Carlin has said in interviews that his goal with War Remains, which he created with MWM Immersive and Skywalker Sound, was to craft an immersive learning experience that shows the horrors of one of the worst places ever to exist on Earth. He says the he toned down the experience from the gorefest it could have been.

War Remains ends up curious in that way: it makes a window to a horrifying event more accessible, more graspable by the mind, more real. But in making it digestible, it’s still a big stretch from actual war. You don’t get the smell of gunpowder, feces, and decaying bodies. You don’t get grime on your face. The fatigue and wear of war can never be translated in 12 virtual minutes. There’s a lot to the presentation, but probably not nearly enough to convey the horrors.

Carlin himself is part of the problem: his modern-day voice, full of factoids and context about World War I, clangs jarringly against the elegant virtual presentation, like an NBA sportscaster trying to liven up Schindler’s List with play-by-play commentary. (I’m not a regular listener of his podcasts; perhaps fans will take it differently.)

War Remains suffers if you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s monumental recent documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. It was fresh in my mind as I wandered the virtual Western Front. Without the voices of those veterans conveying their personal experiences, or those hauntingly realistic faces, War Remains never gets to the human cost of World War I except as an abstraction, even as digital chaos unfolds around you. It’s eerily similar to being caught in a VR version of a “Call of Duty” videogame. That’s not an insult; some of the “CoD” single-player games have strived mightily for fidelity and accuracyin their depictions of war.

VR is in an interesting place right now: the market for home virtual-reality experiences seems to have plateaued, making it a niche market for early adopters and graphics junkies, the laserdisc of our time. Even without wires, they’re still limited by the computing power you can reasonably sell to consumers at a decent price and by the spaces we might use them.

But if my recent visits to Walt Disney World, Legoland Florida, and Universal Studios, VR and 4D experiences have a big future in shared space, such as amusement parks and public installations like War Remains. With big spaces to make VR, 3-D visuals, and gigantic screens into canvases for entertainment and immersive storytelling, you can throw wind and misty water and lights and motion seating and whatever else gets the job done to give your senses something new. You can be inside Hogwarts, or The Lego Movie 2, or Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show set and have fun, memorable experiences.

War Remains is a good reminder that all this new media is going somewhere, and soon. But the battle to get to a next level of VR storytelling is far from over.

Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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