Editors’ Choice: Immersed in the Past – Room-Scale Virtual Reality for Public History

Windows Mixed Reality Headset

Last year, I wrote about my early impressions of the possible uses of virtual reality technology for public history and history education. I also led a session in my fourth-year digital history class on virtual reality and its potential for generating a sense of historical presence, an ability to simulate the sensation of standing in past places. I have been somewhat enthusiastic about what this technology can add to museums, classrooms, and other settings for public history and history education.

My focus last year was on smartphone-based VR with stereoscopic viewers (Google Cardboard, Daydream View, Gear VR). This type of VR technology can generate a powerful sense of presence, but the user is limited to rotational movement along three perpendicular axes (pitch, roll, yaw). This is like being a camera fixed in space that can spin around, but cannot move within that space. Tethered VR headsets that use PCs and spatial tracking systems add translational movement (heave, sway, surge) to VR experiences creating six degrees of freedom of movement. These headsets also include tracked motion controllers that can reveal the user’s hand movements in VR environments and enable interaction with 3D objects. Altogether, this is sometimes called “room-scale VR.” The experience is incredibly immersive.

Recently, I put this kind of immersive VR experience to the test by reviewing three examples of public history VR projects that use room-scale technologies. I used an Acer Mixed Reality Headset, part of Microsoft’s line of virtual reality headsets that use “inside-out tracking” in order to achieve room-scale experiences. Two cameras on the front of the headset map and track the environment around me and the motion controllers generate allow me to interact with objects in a 3D space.

What did this add to VR experiences for public history and history education? How best could it be used? What are its limitations? Let’s find out:

 

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