Skip to main content

Remembering wars, through VR goggles

A new exhibition from Hardcore History host Dan Carlin immerses viewers in World War I's trench warfare.

By Tony Rehagen

Memory Hall, a windowless, high-ceilinged room in The National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, feels mostly unchanged since its 1926 opening. Dimly lit oil paintings depict maps of American battle zones in Europe in 1918 — armies of men reduced to color-coded arrows sweeping across the continent. The names of 441 Kansas Citians who died in the war are frozen in bronze. A massive French panorama portrays the leaders of the Allied nations, their countenances stoic and certain. The patinaed grandeur compels visitors to speak in whispers.

In short, the room is more an artifact of early-1900s museum design than a window into war itself.

But now, a virtual-reality exhibition on the hall’s floorspace closes the distance between the museum’s quiet and war’s reality. Visitors who sign a waiver and slip on a Vive Pro headset are transported to the Western Front of the First World War. The exhibition, War Remains, is designed to simulate a soldier’s first-person perspective and the textures and vibrations of a trench under a barrage of artillery. Participants see, hear, and feel a semblance of the experience that many historians consider one of the closest things in history to hell on Earth.

War Remains is the brainchild of Dan Carlin, a journalist and podcaster whose Hardcore History podcast has millions of downloads. Carlin’s podcast topics range from the First Empire of 500 B.C. to the Mongol Horde of the 1200s to the Japanese Empire during World War II. Carlin frequently reminds listeners that, rather than offer a litany of dates and battle names, he wants to investigate what real people on the ground went through. As part of this, Carlin admits a fascination with the most unimaginably awful extremes of human experience. He thinks the no-man’s-land of France during the so-called War to End All Wars must be on the shortlist.

So when the L.A.-based video game publisher MWM Immersive connected with Carlin to propose recreating a historical experience to promote its VR tech, he quickly settled on World War I as the topic. “This looked like a way to have a virtual time machine,” says Carlin. “These were tools that allowed us to grab people and put them in situations they haven’t been in before, including activating parts of their mind where, even though they knew it wasn’t real, parts of them might not be so sure.”

World War I, devastating and nightmarish, unleashed early-20th-century killing technology — machine guns, tanks, planes, chemical warfare, and barbed wire — and forced armies to struggle over every inch of muddy ground. War Remains presents an opportunity for people to better understand this cataclysmic clash. It may also introduce a new way to use 21st-century technology to teach about the past. And it may help us better understand present conflicts, like the war in Ukraine — the hardship, despair, and violence that even modern social media can’t adequately convey. The hope is that seeing and, to an extent, experiencing these events will help us better comprehend the true cost and consequence of war.

“I think these tools can help us to visualize history, rather than just reading,” says Olly Ayers, professor in history at New College of the Humanities at Northeastern in London. Ayers also thinks the novel tech could attract new students who might not otherwise pick up a book. “I’m always thinking about how to get other people to care about what we do and what the public thinks about history.”

You begin in complete darkness with what sounds like a distant thunderclap in your headset. Then comes the sound of water, dripping in a cave or tunnel. You look down to barely make out the ripples of a puddle, glistening in moonlight beneath a walkway of wooden planks. Then Carlin’s nasal voice opens the narration:

If you could actually download a flashback of, say, the Western Front of the First World War, it might be the most intense thing you could ever experience … That conflict marked the murderous dawn of an era where a mechanized, industrialized, and efficient 20th century dragged the old, honorable, glorious, romantic 19th century across the muddy fields of Flanders and shot it in a trench.

The melodrama is punctuated by an explosion, accentuated by brass horns, that splits the darkness in front of you. A fire roars around you and, suddenly, the silhouette of a World War I soldier appears on the boardwalk before you, walking into the blaze.

When you’re ready — if you’re ready — for even a simulation of what actual people went through, follow in the footsteps of the soldier in front of you as he steps straight into the fire of the First World War.

“We tried to find the line where not everyone is comfortable. That’s a good place to be.”

Dan Carlin, co-inventor of the War Remains exhibition and host of the Hardcore History podcast

Walking through the pixelated firestorm, you enter a roughly 15-minute tour that takes you from the basket of an observation balloon at night, where Carlin lays out the context of the war beneath you, then through darkness into a dark trench. In your earphones, bullets whiz by as artillery shells slam into the ground around you. You hear voices of your comrades — “Let’s do this for Britain!” — and screams of agony. Through the viewfinder, you start to make out soldiers laid out on the ground above your entrenchment. A whistle sounds and some men leap to their feet and run off into no-man’s-land; others lay lifeless.

In a dugout, you come upon a soldier hunched over, head buried in his hands as percussion shells slam in rapid order against the fortification and, presumably, his resolve. The sound is augmented by the walls and floor of the set literally shaking with each round.

But the beleaguered soldier doesn’t reveal his face. Likewise, the enemy is never really seen. Even your would-be comrades are kept at this arm’s length.

The reason for this distance is three-fold. First there’s the technology’s limits. Even though the incredible sound effects were designed by Skywalker Sound of Star Wars fame, the 3D computer-generated graphics are already outpaced by those of some gaming consoles, giving the experience an animated, if not slightly cartoonish, feel. Second, Carlin’s narration, while necessary to give quick context for a 15-minute snapshot of a distant place and time, pulls you out of the story and might even lead you to question the authenticity of what you’re seeing. “Whose voice is this coming from?” says Ayers. “Whose stories are being told? It’s a third-person voiceover telling viewers what to think rather than the soldiers themselves.”

Furthermore, Carlin, a dogged researcher of primary and secondary sources, says he left specifics surrounding the battle intentionally vague. It’s the result of nearly two decades hosting the Hardcore History podcast, which has built a fanbase of equally hardcore buffs who would pick apart any accidental misrepresentation of actual events.

But third, and perhaps most important, the experience is somewhat sanitized because the full reality of World War I would be too real. “If you make this the way we should’ve made it, no one would want to go again,” says Carlin. “But you can’t make it too soft; that’s a disservice to the people who actually experienced this. We tried to find the line where not everyone is comfortable. That’s a good place to be.”

Carlin says his goal was “empathy amplification.” And War Remains achieves this, as much from the small details as from the blockbuster effects: A blood-splattered map. The cringing, faceless soldier. A sepia-toned photograph of a wife, daughter, and son pinned to the dugout wall. A rosary dangling overhead from a dead infantryman’s hand.

These subtle but powerful images may point to another use for this technology to reveal history. It could also depict and explain the important events that occur between the extremes of human experience. “Does it need to be about war?” says Ayers. “Are there more important things to turn these tools towards? Covering the Black experiences? Human interaction with climate? There’s a lot more to uncover in this world.”

Published on

Tony Rehagen is a writer based in St. Louis. His work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Pacific Standard.


Animation by Mar Hernandez


When modern life gets tough, I take refuge in history podcasts

The astonishing medicinal powers of obscure facts, obsessive professors, and droning BBC historians.

By Glenn McDonald