Virtual Reality Opens and Preserves History, says Director.
Early in June, Britain at War was invited to meet with representatives from Wargaming (developer of popular video games World of Tanks and World of Warships) and from Chatham Historic Dockyard, where they presented a glimpse of what may become the future for historical preservation and accessibility.
‘Virtually Inside HMS Cavalier’ consists of a series of 360 videos shot on board the former Royal Navy destroyer. Within it, there are augmented data panels, with text and diagrams. The type of project easily facilitates inclusion of additional supplementary video and archive material embedded within it. The app, hosted by Google Arts & Cultures, allows users to tour, inside and out, the ship. The Google Arts & Cultures platform allows users see the collections of participating museums from anywhere in the world, incorporating video, still images, and virtual reality 360 technology.
Dan Snow, the well-known broadcaster and historian, was heavily involved in the HMS Cavalier project, working with Wargaming’s military specialist, Richard Cutland. Richard stated: “[It’s an] awesome VR/AR experience”. Dan Snow later added: “You get all the advantages of TV, but with unbelievable amounts of extra content”
Cavalier is the last surviving British destroyer from the Second World War which remains in the UK, and is important because she represents the efforts of hundreds of the Royal Navy’s destroyers during the conflict. In 2007, the ship was made the official war memorial to the 142 British destroyers lost in the conflict, and to the 11,000 men killed serving with or on board them.
Destroyer crews braved harsh conditions such as extreme cold and heavy storms, as well as enemy action, knowing their smaller and thinly-armoured vessels relied on speed and were unlikely to weather a serious hit. Still, they proved vital to submarine hunting, escorting capital ships, protecting the Atlantic, Malta, and Arctic convoys, evacuating troops from Dunkirk and Crete, providing shore bombardment in invasions and raids, were the eyes and ears of the Navy, a force multiplier, and capable of bringing down even the largest warships.
As well as making exhibits such as Cavalier more accessible to people who, for one reason or another, cannot get on board the ship, the new technology uncovers areas on the vessel such as the engine room which are not open to the public. Tracy Spaight, Wargaming’s Director of Special Projects, explained: “It’s the nearest thing to actually being there. You can go into spaces that are not accessible to the public, such as the engine room. The engine isn’t just something that is in front of you, it is two storeys tall and is all around you. We can really capture that with 360 VR and share it with the world.”
Soon after the recent event, Britain at War was contacted by The Tank Museum, with details of their latest project as part of their remarkable Tiger Collection exhibition. They, also by working with Wargaming, have implemented Augmented Reality technology, meaning a rare German assault gun, the Stürmtiger, can be seen at the museum despite not actually being physically there.
VR/AR projects such as this help to preserve the ship. Indeed, The Tank Museum has reported that visitor numbers have increased off the back of digital projects such as ‘Inside the Tanks’, or through other Wargaming products. Chatham also expects visitor numbers to rise.
It’s the nearest thing to actually being there. You can go into spaces that are not accessible to the public, such as the engine room. The engine isn’t just something that is in front of you, it is two storeys tall and is all around you. We can really capture that with 360 VR and share it with the world.
Although Cavalier and The Tank Museum’s vehicles are not under threat, and preservation will long continue, unfortunately nothing can last forever. Taking Cavalier as an example, which is still afloat as this keeps pressure off her hull, corrosion is a constant concern. If the ship was to be permanently dry-docked, a facility which Chatham Historic Dockyard has, this would create pressures on her hull which overtime could permanently damage her despite every effort to protect the ship. The destroyer was built with the expectation of surviving a year; who can predict what she will look like on her 200th birthday in 2144?
AR and VR Bring History Alive
VR projects can be easily archived, meaning a detailed visual record of Cavalier will be available for generations to come. Wargaming believes in ‘giving back’, and partnering with museums allows them to do this. This is the view shared by Tracy Spaight, who commented: “It’s one thing to read about these [exhibits] or see them in video, but it’s quite another experience to be able to knock on the ship and just walk around… But, for those who are not able to, for example, come across the Atlantic from the States or other parts of the world, what we’ve tried to do is to fill that gap.”
“It is an incredible experience.” Explained Richard Cutland. The experience brings to life what conditions on board a serving destroyer may have been like. “If the ship took a torpedo, these guys would not have had time to put their foot on the first rung of the ladder”, said Dan Snow, who continued: “I grew up doing old-fashioned 2-Dimensional TV. The excitement of being able to harness these new technologies, to take the audience into these spaces that I have been privileged enough to go into, is what keeps me going. I absolutely love it. For me, AR/VR totally benefits history. These are real spaces, this new technology gives this whole sector and genre world-beating potential.”
Richard Holdsworth, Museum & Heritage Director at Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, explained: “It gives us the opportunity to reach people across the world. The engine room is just too dangerous. It is the environment, the vertical ladders, the low headroom. This will give people the opportunity to see it. We’re really pleased and proud to be involved in this operation.”
On the same day of the Wargaming event, news broke that USS Texas, the oldest surviving dreadnought battleship, had developed a dramatic leak. A 6x8in hole below the waterline caused the ship to list by 6 degrees. Thankfully, she was saved and soon reopened – her hull quickly repaired and the list corrected – 1,800,000 gallons of water was pumped from the ship in a process lasting 15 hours.
Bill Erwin, Superintendent for San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, explained that the ship, because of its age, constantly leaks, but the new hole overwhelmed existing measures: “She’s a hundred-year-old battleship who’s sitting in water and her hull is made of steel and steel rusts. Eventually, we’re going to have deterioration within the hull.” This just further highlights the importance of preserving these iconic ships, both physically and virtually.