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VR and History

by Beth Divine 24 Oct 2018

History is coming back to life in a new and exciting way. This is thanks to the University of Birmingham’s Heritage Virtual Reality project, which aims to recreate locations and events in an authentic simulation. Their current offering, a modest scenario, has been to recreate a 1940s train station, showing what life on the rails would have been like in those days.

But this pales in comparison to the ambitious project that they are currently working on. They are working on recreating the sailing of the Mayflower, the ship that carried the pilgrims from England to a new brave future in America, that newly discovered fertile and welcoming land (or so they saw it). The ship sailed from Plymouth in 1620 and the descendants of those pilgrims who survived the experience were soon as feted in their new society as aristocrats had been amongst the society that they had left behind in England.

The University of Birmingham is working on recreating seventeenth-century Plymouth, as well as conditions on the ship in order to create an interactive experience that is due to be released in 2020 in time for the 400th anniversary of that historic voyage. The experience is designed to be enjoyed by both English and American visitors, taking them through the whole process from Plymouth town to the lengthy and dangerous days on the ship.

Virtual reality is also being used to create underwater views in a safer environment. People with no diving – or even swimming – skills can enjoy exploring the depths of the ocean, marvelling at the weird marine life that is found at depths that would be instantly lethal to people. It is hinted that part of the Mayflower scenario will include some underwater shots of the ship as it passes over the heads of whales and sharks, the wake of the ship disturbing drifting seaweed as it floats dreamily under the sky.

An unexpected side effect of recreating the past with virtual reality has been to awaken interest in older people, particularly those who can personally remember historical events and places. Some of these elderly folk, having begun to drift into the clutches of senility and dementia, have found themselves with a renewed sense of purpose. Many have returned to their homes, after seeing familiar old places through a virtual reality headset, rummaging in attics and under beds to find, and then send in photos and pictures from their younger days. Photos which feature those historic places, and more, which can then be used to expand and make the experience ever more authentic and enjoyable – all while being historically accurate!