On the night of September 3, 1943, hundreds of Royal Air Force pilots and crew prepared themselves and their planes for the long flight across the North Sea to conduct a night-time raid over Berlin. One of over 350 raids carried out over the German capital during the war, what made this a significant date was the cargo being carried on board one Lancaster bomber in particular — “F for Freddie.” Taking off from RAF Langar in Nottinghamshire, F for Freddie was equipped with an additional weapon beyond its usual payload of machine guns and bombs: a journalist.
BBC reporter Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and his engineer, Reg Pidsley, joined the RAF crew to record and broadcast the night’s events through radio, as the aircraft flew its mission over enemy occupied territory swarming with hostile fighters. In his own words, watching the bombs drop “was like watching somebody throwing jewellery on black velvet, winching rubies, sparkling diamonds all coming up at you.” It was possibly the most hazardous eye witness account given on the radio during the whole war.
The immersive wartime experience
This broadcast gripped the nation and gave civilians and historians alike a rare insight into the nature of the bombing raids – and the people who flew them. So why am I telling you this? The intense detail of this recording has enabled the BBC to recreate Vaughn-Thomas’ journey in a VR experience — where users ride along in F for Freddie and witness what Vaugh-Thomas described as the “biggest fireworks show in the world”.
The incredible, incessant march of technology means that this VR experience was unthinkable even a decade ago — but while these innovations are exciting, they also raise interesting questions.
As history moves from being “written by the victors” to being coded by the programmers, how do we ensure accurate representations are created? And perhaps more importantly — do we want to re-create accurate representations? Given the gruesome nature of much of history, are some experiences better left to the text books?
What VR can do
I think it’s firstly important to properly consider and understand the nature of a VR experience. Capable of transporting your senses to a new world, there has never been a technology that completely immerses a user in the same way. When describing something with such vast potential it’s easy to turn to clichés — but for VR the possibilities are truly limitless.
An example of the immersive powers of VR came through the controversial VR experience 08:46 — in which users are placed in the World Trade Center during the harrowing events of September 11. While initially provoking outrage for creating a window back to this tragic event, the fundamental purpose of the experience is admirable — to create an authentic experience that theoretically helps foster understanding and builds empathy, which is a powerful tool in communicating the event to younger people who won’t have a conscious memory of the attack.
Consequently, PEGI announced VR might force them into a rethink of the ratings system given the realism of the tech. It’s certainly something we as an industry need to get right, or we run the risk of VR’s huge potential to improve our lives being overlooked as a mere gimmick.
A double-edged sword
Perhaps because it has been touted as the ‘next big thing’ for so long, VR technology seems to have a growing reputation as an old man at the tech table — evidenced by it being overtaken by it’s acronym-sharing siblings AR & MR in the Gartner Hype Cycle. The Berlin Blitz is another example of VR’s capability to open a portal to the past, creating previously unimaginable experiences that open up possibilities not only in gaming but for the future of tourism, journalism, and education.
VR can create thought-provoking worlds, but staying on the right side of the line between too real and just real enough is vital for VR experiences. Being able to join the crew of F for Freddie in a Lancaster bomber is an amazing insight into history, holding a mirror up to our collective national memory and exposing the horrible realities of war, but a VR experience of civilians on the ground below might be too traumatic for the mind to compute.
Just as Vaugh-Thomas’ pioneering use of technology gave his compatriots a gripping, unrivaled insight into the flight of a bomber-crew in 1943, the revolutionary capabilities of VR enable us today to travel backwards through time and relive experiences from history first hand. If those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it — a technology that lets us relive the past again (and again) is a powerful tool indeed.
When VR can be such a powerful tool for our past and present — we must make sure it’s a responsible part of our future.
Jason Kingsley (an Officer of the British Empire) is the cofounder of game developer Rebellion.
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