On August 6, 1945, Shigeru Orimen traveled from his rural home near Itsukaichi-cho to Hiroshima, where he was one of nearly 27,000 students working to prepare the city for impending U.S. airstrikes. For lunch that day, he had brought soybeans, sautéed potatoes and strips of daikon.
When the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima at 8:16 a.m., Shigeru was among the nearly 7,200 students who perished. Three days later, his mother Shigeko would identify his body using his lunch box; the food inside was transformed into coal, but the outside remained intact.
Today, his lunch box and Shigeko’s testimony are part of the archives at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The object and its story 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 (the 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 and then moves to a second chapter focused on the aftermath of the attack. Audience members can walk through the ruins of the city and examine artifacts from the bombing, including Shigeru’s lunch box. In the final chapter, the piece shifts toward the present, describing the frenetic race to create new atomic weapons and the continued threat of nuclear war.
It’s hardly the only piece at Tribeca to focus on difficult topics: Among the festival’s 34 immersive titles are pieces that grapple with the legacy of racism, the threat of climate change, AIDS and the ongoing crisis in Syria. Neither is it the first VR installation to achieve popular acclaim. Last November, filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu received an Oscar at the Academy’s Governor’s Awards for his virtual reality installation CARNE y ARENA, which captures the experience of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Day the World Changed differs from these installations in a critical respect: Much of the material already exists in an archival format. Video testimony and radiated relics from the day of devastation come from the museum’s archives and photogrammetry (the creation of 3D models using photography) allowed for digital reproductions of surviving sites. In this sense, the piece shares more with the interpretive projects led by traditional documentarians and historians than the fantastical or gamified recreations that most associate with virtual reality.
What makes it different, Arora and Unseld say, is that the storytelling possibilities enabled by immersive technologies allow viewers to experience previously inaccessible locations—for example, the inside of the Atomic Dome, the Unesco World Heritage site directly underneath the explosion of the bomb that remains intact—and engage with existing artifacts in a more visceral way.
The future is exciting, though there’s a certain tension given the national conversation on the dangers of technological manipulation. “You have to be very careful,” Arora says. “We think it’s important to figure out the grammar of VR and not just rely on an easy sort of way of horrifying people. Because that doesn’t last.”
But what, exactly, makes a visual medium immersive? That question captivated one of VR’s early pioneers, Morton Heilig. In 1962, he developed the Sensorama, a mechanical device that looks like a combination of an arcade game and a tonometer. The Sensorama included a body tilting chair and full stereo sound, projected 3D images and even released aromas over the course of the short films.
While the project never received commercial funding, Heilig remained 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 sort of spectacular engagement foreshadowed by the Sensorama with greater clarity—and at far lower cost. “Open your eyes, listen, smell, and feel—sense the world in all its magnificent colors, depth, sounds, odors, and textures,” he proclaimed. “This is the cinema of the future!”
For Heilig, film was no longer just a visual medium, but an “art of consciousness,” and the future of cinema was not just in its ability to transmit lucid and realistic experiences, but to capture nature and history in its most gripping dimensions.
The spiritualism articulated by Heilig took an especially dystopian form a few years later in science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the book’s post-apocalyptic world devoid of meaning and genuine connection, survivors yearning for purpose and community follow a character named Wilbur Mercer. Through an “empathy box,” acolytes join Mercer on a never-ending climb up a barren mountain as he is stoned by unseen foes. Like self-flagellation, the exercise takes on a reverential quality among followers. As one explains, “It’s the way you touch other humans, it’s the way you stop being alone.”
Against a backdrop of tech evangelists promoting virtual reality as the “ultimate empathy machine,” Dick’s admonition still feels remarkably appropriate. With cutting-edge technologies that promise to unsettle our sense of place, the line between compassion and trauma grows porous. Those anxieties manifest in The Day the World Changed, a piece with a clear message—the abolition of nuclear weapons—whose creators nonetheless say they have no interest in peddling ideology.
“You don’t want to force something down someone’s throat,” Unseld says. “But you don’t want to leave them completely, either. You want to guide them in a way that is very respectful of their own pace and their own kind of humanity.”
Unseld says that because VR lends itself to stories about “our spirituality,” “our collective guilt,” “our collective responsibility,” and “our collective ability for change,” creators have to think about the lives and experiences of their audience and find ways to communicate a message while leaving choices open-ended. In this sense, it works best as provocation rather than polemic, a story that invites awareness without forcing the viewer into a particular pair of shoes.
Creators using these immersive mediums might take a page out of a surprising playbook—that of historians. Sure, their digital recreations may lack the dazzle of Hollywood visuals, but their focus on how to create meaningful engagement is certainly applicable. And as Lisa Snyder, an architectural historian at UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education points out, vivid imagery isn’t always what makes people intellectually engaged.
“When people see photorealistic spaces, there is an acceptance,” she says. “It’s a harder leap for people to say, ‘Oh I should be critical about this.’”
Snyder has spent more than 20 years working in what she calls “desktop VR.” Basically, she creates incredibly precise models of historical sites—from Carnac to Chicago’s Columbian Exposition—that educators use for classroom exercises and museum audiences explore on guided tours. Her work is a painstaking process that requires the same dedication of traditional historians. She meticulously determines dimensions using build guides and archeological evidence, and creates textures and color palettes using contemporaneous sources. For every hour of modeling, she says she spends five hours researching.
“I’m not interested in somebody using this visualization as a spin the artifact thing,” she says. “I want something that people are going to walk through and experience.”
While historians’ work may seem far afield at first glance, they are ultimately interested in the same end goal: Giving audiences the space to learn, discover and engage with the past. Technology can change the contours of that engagement, says Steven Mintz, a digital historian and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, but viewing isn’t enough.
“It’s interacting with the material that is what history needs to be,” he says. “The analysis that you’re doing is what makes it meaningful.”
As immersive technologies continue to delve into the past in order to shape attitudes in the present-day, Mintz says there is a need to avoid mere spectacle. But he’s optimistic about the future, especially if scholars and artists can find ways to work together with the support of foundations and cultural institutions. And as Arora and Unseld note, the new bells and whistles 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 match.
“I think there’s something in VR that inherently makes you feel,” Unseld says. “Because you’re robbed of your body in a way, and you become a spirit, VR speaks to your soul.”