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Experiencing the Civil War through virtual reality

VR Reenactment

Director Shane Seley puts actors through their paces between shots.

From deep inside a hand-dug trench, cannon blasts rattle you and shrapnel rains down all around. The smoke is so thick, you can hardly make out the Union soldiers on your left scrambling to reload their rifles. On your right, a lieutenant screams, over the din of whooping Confederates downrange, for his men to stay at the ready. A near-miss musket ball zings over your head.

And then the scene fades to black. You glance away from the smartphone in your hands, and you finally exhale. It was just a video, but it made you feel like you were there. You’ve just experienced virtual reality, or VR for short. This ambitious video project is called “Civil War 1864: A Virtual Reality Experience.”

This VR footage offers an unimpeded 360-degree view of the action: look up, down, behind you, any which way, and you’ll see and hear different parts of the scene unfolding in real time. For the viewer, it can be an instantly immersive and almost dreamlike encounter — and that’s exactly the point, according to Mary Koik, spokeswoman for the American Battlefield Trust, the organization that produced “Civil War 1864.”

“That’s what we’d love people to feel like — that they’re in an experience they could only imagine,” she said. “You can read books, watch inspirational documentaries, and go to sites and feel moved by them. But you’re imagining the past. This is the closest we’ve been able to [come towards] find[ing] a way to really put people into history."

The nonprofit, nonpartisan American Battlefield Trust began more than three decades ago as the Civil War Trust, and to date, the organization has protected more than 50,000 acres of land associated with that war, as well as from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. But this project is about more than the intrinsic value of land preservation, Koik said.

“If we don’t inspire people to care about history, then a generation from now, it loses something. It’s about getting people to feel impacted by history, that there’s a connection and resonance to them today. That’s why we preserve things — to feel connected.”

To replicate what a “regular” experience would have been like for the average Civil War soldier, the American Battlefield Trust hired a production company that specializes in filming historical reenactments, Kansas City-based Wide Awake Films. Starting in 2015, from concept to completion, it took two full years to create.

On a western Missouri farm that stood in for a Civil War battlefront, the filmmakers brought to life four separate vignettes: Union soldiers on patrol, Confederates on patrol, combat in the trenches, and a scene at a field hospital. They also had help from passionate Civil War buffs who made sure every last item, down to the buttons on the uniforms, was as historically accurate as possible.

Normally, a film director stays behind the camera, but with a six-camera GoPro rig capturing images from literally every angle, that option was out of the question. Director Shane Seley ended up in costume himself, dressed as a Union soldier, to blend into the action.

“Everything you can see with your naked eye in a 360-degree plane is seen,” said Seley, who's also the founder of Wide Awake Films. “It was Filmmaking 101; it was very tough for us. We had to be creative. Some of us on crew were wearing uniform parts, and would play dead or hide when we were filming, because there’s nowhere to hide on a virtual reality set.”

Seley is himself a self-described history nerd (the name of his company and its eyeball logo come from the "Wide Awake" political movement of the 1860s that helped get Abraham Lincoln elected), and his production company has been working with the American Battlefield Trust since 2001.

“Everybody in our shop is into this stuff, telling the stories of veterans and American heroes, and making sure we get it right — make sure it’s compelling and interesting for today’s audience,” he said. “If our stuff doesn’t stand its ground among anything else they see on Netflix or a game, then we shouldn’t even be doing it.”

For true sensory immersion, Seley recommends viewing “Civil War 1864” with an Oculus headset, if possible. Otherwise, grab your mobile device, find a dark room, plop into a chair that swivels, put on some headphones, and enjoy the nuanced audio production. The remarkable sound effects will shift and change, depending on which direction you’re facing.

“The point of this kind of thing is,” Seley said, “[to] get kids and new generations interested in this stuff. I’m a Gen Xer. Not a lot of my friends are into it. We need to keep this stuff alive, especially if we’re going to keep these battlefields alive, these ‘islands of green’ among the concrete.”

As technology has improved and expanded, the American Battlefield Trust is trying out new ways to reach and inspire, especially in trying to marry the idea of technology and place-based education. Being on an actual battlefield is important, Koik said, but it’s equally important to reach people where they are.

“We’ve tested apps on the phone, and they’re GPS enabled, so when you’re on the battlefield, you’ll see video of a top historian giving a speech he’d make on a tour if he were there. But that’s also something someone a thousand miles away can use,” she said.

Moving forward, the trust plans to offer more in the way of AR, or augmented reality — that is, putting something that isn’t really there into the place where you are. Imagine being at Gettysburg; you could hold aloft your phone to see soldiers at a distance moving across the landscape at the Little Round Top battlefield, or watch Lincoln himself deliver his famous address.

Other future AR or VR opportunities could include the American Revolution and the War of 1812, though the Trust primarily has focused on the events of the Civil War, Koik said.

“The fact that you can use it to tell stories is really compelling,” she said. “I really do believe that the word ‘story’ is part of the word ‘history’ for a reason. These personal moments, what people lived and experienced, connects us to the past, and getting to approximate that experience is what makes it even more powerful. They were a person, just like you.”

To see "Civil War 1864: A Virtual Reality Experience," visit www.battlefields.org/virtualreality.

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