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Virtual reality takes viewers into Vimy battle

Viewers sit in a 2.5-metre high booth to get the virtual reality experience.
Victor Chui

Students visiting Vimy Ridge for the 100th anniversary got a chance to see what the battlefield looked like 100 years ago, thanks to virtual reality technology.

Students travelling with EF Educational Tours in April were immersed in the technology used by Simwave Consulting of Kanata, Ont., to create an experience which takes the viewer into the tunnels at Vimy, just before Zero Hour on April 9, 1917.

“It is all part of their preparation for when they are actually there during the [centennial] commemorations,” explained Matt Thomas, the company’s head of business development.

“We have been collaborating with the Canadian War Museum to make sure that we have everything right, from uniforms to the type of rifles the men used,” he said.

The final product is a short virtual reality scenario that the viewer can experience by going into the specially built booth and donning a set of goggles and headphones. The 2.5-metre high booth offers a 360-degree experience. The ground rumbles underneath the viewer and he or she sees the images, hears the sounds and breathes the smell of battle. Hot and cold fans create weather effects.

Virtual Canadian soldiers advance on Vimy Ridge.
Nathan Elliott

“The technology is mostly being used for educational purposes. It is more interesting than looking through a book and it can be fun,” said Thomas.

In the scenario for Vimy Ridge, the viewer starts in the tunnels under the ridge on the morning of the attack. The viewer goes through the tunnels. If he or she brushes the side of the tunnel, dirt falls from the wall. Once outside the tunnel, the viewer crouches in a trench in a row of soldiers waiting for the creeping barrage to begin. An officer or sergeant comes along the line and tells the viewer to fix his bayonet on the rifle in his hands. Then the barrage begins. The ground shakes. A moment later, the viewer is on the move, charging toward the enemy as bullets fly past and explosions happen at an uncomfortably close range.

The experience ends with a view of Vimy today, with its parkland and the enormous monument.

“We are also working on an app that students can use on their phones so they will be able to see artifacts, such as the Lee-Enfield rifle,” said Thomas.

As well as being exhibited at Vimy, the booth will be loaned to the war museum in the future. A variation of the Vimy scenario, concentrating on the role of the Royal Canadian Regiment, is being installed in the RCR Museum in London, Ont.

Simwave is also using its technology to build an exhibit for the Canada Science and Technology Museum, which is set to reopen this year once renovations to its building are complete. The exhibit will accompany a steam locomotive. The viewer will be an engineer for the experience, twisting and turning knobs in the right sequence to get the locomotive operating properly.


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