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Virtual Reality Depiction Of Trench Warfare Opens At Kansas City's WWI Museum And Memorial

Courtesy of MWM Interactive
"War Remains" transports visitors to the Western Front battlefield of World War I.

Starting May 27, visitors to the National WWI Museum and Memorial can explore the Western Front in "War Remains," an immersive reality experience.

A new virtual reality experience at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City will take visitors insidethe long, narrow trenches that epitomize the conflict known as the first world war.

The immersive experience, “War Remains,” attempts to recreate soldiers' experiences along the Western Front, a 400-mile stretch of trenches, dugouts and barbed-wired fences through France and Belgium.

“War Remains” premiered in 2019 at Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. When it traveled to Austin, Texas, for a limited run, Matthew Naylor, executive director of the museum and memorial, booked a flight — and knew he wanted to bring the experience to Kansas City.

"Our work is to help people understand how the world continues to be shaped by the founding catastrophe of the 20th Century," Naylor says. "And this experience is extraordinary."

“War Remains” uses virtual reality to give visitors a taste of the Western Front of the First World War. The VR headset allows the user to move through 3D space and interact with the environment.
Courtesy of MWM Interactive
“War Remains” uses virtual reality to give visitors a taste of the Western Front of the First World War. The VR headset allows the user to move through 3D space and interact with the environment.

"War Remains" is now in Kansas City, tucked into the Museum and Memorial’s Memory Hall, on the east side of the Liberty Memorial Tower. It will open to the public on May 27.

One visitor at a time, wearing a VR headset, enters a small room, 25 by 25 feet — that feels much larger. Walking through the space, visitors will experience the sights and sounds of the "nightmarish hellscape” of trenches during an active battle scene. Podcaster Dan Carlin narrates from a soldier’s perspective.

“To have it in a location that’s so meaningful to the subject matter ... is so incredibly important to us,” says Ethan Stearns, executive vice president of MWM Interactive, the indie video game publisher that helped create the exhibit.

“The idea that people can go in and out of ‘War Remains’ and come into a museum that tells the deeper story is exactly the experience we wanted to create."

Stearns says that Carlin, who created the "Hardcore History" podcast, came up with the idea, and partnered with MWM Interactive for virtual reality elements. Carlin’s grandfather served on the Western Front.

“What Dan really wanted to do was create a time machine," Stearns says. "He wanted to take people to a moment in time. And he wanted them to experience it and feel it and be there ... and to help drive people to learn more about that moment in history.”

Courtesy of MWM Interactive
"War Remains" allows visitors, wearing a wireless VR headset, to walk through an "immersive memory" of the First World War.

The project was produced by MWM and developed by Flight School Studio, with audio designed by Skywalker Sound. Brandon Oldenburg, an Academy award winner and the chief creative officer of Flight School Studio, directed.

“Telling stories on a 2-D screen ... is one thing," says Oldenburg. "But to be able to create an environment where you physically can sense and touch ... truly connects you to the memories of the past."

The experience, he says, is like a “physical set piece” with visual effects, sound design, and one-to-one touch.

“If you see a rosary dangling from a hand of a soldier who has passed, you can touch it," Oldenburg says, "If you see a radio in a bunker, you can touch it. You will feel the air, you will also feel the vibration of the sub bass of the shelling happening around you."

That realism — like vibrations that simulate what it's like to be near an explosion — is why the exhibit comes with a caution for those with medical conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety. Visitors are required to be 14 years or older.

“The moment you realize that there are tanks on the field ... and the sound of horses ... clashing in real-time, it’s just so heartbreaking and terrifying and shocking,” Oldenburg says. “All of that completely puts you there, a lasting memory of what it’s like.”

Courtesy of MWM Interactive
When visitors look down a trench in "War Remains" it seems to stretch for miles.

Brandon Padveen, associate producer with MWM, describes the bunker sequence.

“The place is full of rats, it’s claustrophobic, it's really loud," he says. "And you're also getting this really wonderful narration from Dan (Carlin). That’s where we see people need to cut out of the experience.”

But when visitors take off the virtual reality headsets, he says, they’re reminded that “it’s just this tiny little open room ... the layer of virtual reality.”

A notebook at the end of "War Remains" provides a moment of reflection for visitors to write about the experience, before stepping outside. After this journey, as director Brandon Oldenburg puts it, “it can be quite jarring to just step right out of this museum and go back into the real world.”

“War Remains” opens to the public on May 27 inside the National WWI Museum and Memorial's Memory Hall. Timed-entry tickets are on sale through Labor Day weekend.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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