By Kevin Collison
You could call “War Remains,” the new virtual reality experience at the National World War I Museum, a blockbuster attraction, except for its solitary nature, one person can visit every 15 minutes.
The exhibition has been a sellout since opening shortly before Memorial Day weekend and is completely booked at this point through early July. The museum, which owns the production, plans to keep it open until at least Labor Day.
It’s easy to see why.
The state-of-the-art, 21st Century audio-visual technology provides visitors with a virtual taste of what it might have looked and sounded in the horrific trench warfare of the First World War over a century ago.
“Everyone should experience this ‘reality’ of war,” one person wrote in a visitors’ log. “Books and regular movies can’t touch this.”
The War Remains virtual experience premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in 2019, then traveled to Austin and was scheduled to come to the World War I Museum last year before Covid hit.
During the interim, it received the “Out-of-home VR Entertainment of the Year” award at the VR Awards. The more than $1 million production was donated to the World War I Monument and Museum by Gigi Pritzker and Madison Wells.
The technology and space used for War Remains is housed in the Memory Hall, one of the two original galleries that flank the World War I Monument on its plaza overlooking downtown.
“The installation people said this is where it belongs because of the World War I murals in here,” said Sean McElvain, the AV specialist in charge of operating the attraction.
Visitors are brought into the darkened space and seated at a stool where they are fitted with virtual reality goggles and headphones. Once immersed in the experience, the silhouette of a soldier beckons them to follow.
The narration is provided by Dan Carlin, a well-known podcast producer of “Hardcore History.” It was Carlin’s idea to create an exhibit of “immersive memory” after doing a multi-part podcast about World War I.
The first stop is the gondola of a surveillance balloon high above the battlefield shrouded in clouds below. A quick overview of the war is provided while you feel the breeze and ‘see’ the other balloons around you as an occasional military biplane passes by.
Then you descend into the nightmarish trench. Visitors are encouraged to look all around to observe the virtual, animated canvass around them. A few feet away from you in the trench, several terrified soldiers cower to the sound of bullets and cannon.
It’s as if you’re with them, waiting for the fateful order to go over the top into No Man’s Land.
Each visitor can discover for themselves more of the details which include sheltering in a shell-rattled bunker and watching a massive tank roll nearby across the shattered terrain. It takes on average 12- to 15 minutes to complete the experience.
“People are usually overwhelmed by it, there’s such an intensity to it,” McElvain said. “It’s gets you as close as you can get to experience the war. People find it eye opening.”
One person wrote in the visitors’ log: “This is the new museum of the 21st Century. You have certainly peeked my interest in combining virtual reality with the museum design.”
Said another: “My Gawd! The hell man has brought upon ourselves. That anyone would experience this was able to continue is an amazing feat.”
McElvain said visitors have ranged in age from 14 to 91. No one under 14 is allowed because of the graphic nature of some of the violence depicted. Individuals aged 14 through 17 must have a signed release from a parent or guardian to participate.
Visitors are asked to arrive 15 minutes prior to their ticketed time. To access Memory Hall, people enter the World War I Museum through the main entrance and use the east elevator.
Tickets cost $24 and World War I Museum members receive a 25 percent discount. Museum summer hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily all week.
War Remains was produced by MWM Interactive and directed by Brandon Oldenburg, an Academy Award-winning film director and winner of four Emmys. It was developed by Flight School Studio, with audio designed by Skywalker Sound.
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