Almost Like I Was There

Using virtual reality for public history projects invites the audience to step into the past, into the shoes of real people who lived before us. It creates an immersive experience, by definition.

The Chicago00 Project used innovative technology to bring virtual reality to mobile phones via a series of applications centered around Chicago history. The developers and collaborators had three goals in mind for this project: “To activate archives by creating history experiences outside the museum walls, to engage new communities by bringing those experiences to the places and communities where the stories occurred, [and] to experiment by seeking out synergies between new media technology and old media content and create historical experiences beyond documentary films and coffee table books.”

Navigating the Valentine’s Day Massacre virtual reality app.

One of these apps* centers around the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. (*I linked to the iPhone app because I have an iPhone, and this is what I used to review the app. It is also available for Android.)

The app opens to a street view taken from Google. As you move your phone around, the view moves, as well, almost like you are looking around a street: the phone becomes a window to a Chicago neighborhood as it stands today. (Side note: this is how I realized that there is a pastry shop that sells excellent macarons on almost the exact site of the massacre, #notsponsored.) At the same time, narration about the event fades in, and along with it, period photographs begin to appear overlaid onto the modern-day scene. The story is engaging: a man with an expressive voice gives a lively retelling. You can pause the story at any time, but music continues to play–keeping you somewhat immersed in the experience.

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The scene of the murders, 2122 N. Clark St.

Touching the bottom of the screen, you can click through a series of photographs from the day of the massacre. A collapsable text box provides more information about each image. There are quite a few to scroll through, and you can do just that, scroll and glance through the historical materials to get a sense of what the scene looked like–or you can take the time to read each caption and experience a more thorough timeline of events. This option provides an alternative for people who can’t hear or don’t have headphones with them, but still want to know the story.

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A more cheerful scene: the Avenue of Flags at the 1933 World’s Fair, fading in over what that space looks like currently.

The same group of people developed a similar app about the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. This is, overall, a much happier experience to relive through virtual reality, and a sprightlier, female voice narrates the story–you notice the change in tone immediately if you switch from one app to the other.

The Century of Progress app, as it’s called, has much more content than the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre app. Scrolling through the visual materials on the lower half of the screen, I quickly determined that it was on the longer side for an immersive experience. I glanced through the materials to see if there were any links to an article or piece of writing that might be quicker to read, but did not find any–once you’re inside this experience, you are in.

While I have some qualms, as a historian, with not linking to sources and further reading, overall I think these apps are a fantastic way for a general audience to experience events in Chicago’s past. The (free!) apps are fairly accessible–although they would be enhanced by a VR headset, it isn’t necessary to use one to experience the stories. The use of music and narration make them a rich experience, even if you can’t see the visual materials, while vice versa, you can read through the stories even if you can’t listen to them.

Mostly, these apps are a fun way to learn about history. Chicagoans in particular will recognize neighborhoods they already know, and be able to picture what happened in the past, almost like they were there.

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