How Can Virtual Reality Engage with Historical Narrative?

In continuing our discussion of digital storytelling, this week I reviewed two tours currently available as part of the Chicago  ØØ Project, a collaborative venture made available to us, in part, through the Chicago History Museum. The first, Chicago ØØ: St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, uses primary source documents and photographs to create an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience for the viewer at a site with no historical marker of the event. The second, Chicago ØØ: A Century of Progress, creates a virtual

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Highlighted in the tour as the star of the fair, the Sky Ride was comparable to the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Ferris wheel at the Columbian Exhibition

experience of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago using original images from the fair’s Sky Ride as well as modern drone photography. I wanted to explore how each tour fared both in terms of usability and as a platform for digital storytelling.

The first VR tour, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, gives the user several options to experience it. The tour can be viewed with and without a virtual reality viewer, on a laptop or as an app on mobile devices. In all cases, the brief but informative six-and-a-half minute tour does not have to consider weather or physical accessibility of the site, as it can be taken in the comfort of one’s home by anyone with a computer and an Internet connection (and as someone who recently took a nine-hour walking tour in the rain for her public history class, this aspect of accessibility was very much appreciated). The tour

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Overlay of historical photograph with a contemporary picture of Clark Street

layers original police, press, and coroner photographs over the current site, which bears little resemblance to that section of Clark Street in 1929. Our narrator tells the story of massacre, interpreting events as we know them from the historical documents, as well as the larger significance of the event, contextualizing for the user that “photographs of the scene shocked the country, and turned the tide of public opinion against Chicago’s violent, bootlegging gangsters.”
On the mobile app, the user can move their phone in all directions to experience different angles of the overlaid photographs, a function that can be utilized on a laptop by moving the mouse. While many tour users will have seen these photographs before, seeing them through the VR experience allows for what Farman refers to as a “defamiliarizing” of people with their places and technology, and allows them to “attach

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Iconic image of St. Valentine’s Day Massacre overlaid onto contemporary site

story to place.” The narration that accompanies these photographs, and the linear story told of that fateful day, connects the user to time, place, and narrative in a way that is easily accessible, with minimal time and no travel commitment.
One of the benefits of mobile media storytelling, though, in addition to portability and accessibility, is its ability to include a multitude of voices, a benefit that was not fully utilized in this tour. Users experienced the event through the lens of the official report, with no mention of conflicting stories or additional voices that may challenge the Historical narrative. Newspaper headlines and stories were presented as a 360 viewing exhibit, a feature that was both dizzying and nearly unreadable, an opportunity missed to include voices other than the narrator’s.

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Black-and-white image of the entrance to 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, overlaid on current site

The second tour, A Century of Progress, creates another VR experience that overlays photographs of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair onto the contemporary site(s).  The tour begins in contemporary time and place, with a gradual fade-in of the black-and-white photos of the entrance to the fair and a description of how it would have looked to the original fair-goers (“25,000 gallons of paint to paint the city in 28 special colors, so many colors it was called the ‘Rainbow City.’”)  The tour also puts the fair into a larger historical framework, describing how 1930’s Americans had seen “three decades of astonishing inventions: radios, telephones, films, cars, planes, skyscrapers, and then world war and the Great Depression,” and then tying it back to the local space—“Chicago had been at the center of it.”

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1933 Chicago World’s Fair motto: Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms

Like the St Valentine’s Day Massacre tour, A Century of Progress highlights how the current space bears little resemblance to the historical one, as all of the World’s Fair construction was taken down within the following year.  I was interested, again, about the tour’s choice to include only one voice in the narrative, particularly as famed burlesque dancer Sally Rand is mentioned on several occasions, and a quotation from her is displayed on the screen in the tour’s opening, but that brief opening quote is the only point that we encounter the narrative from her perspective.  Like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre tour, it feels like a missed opportunity to include more voices and let the actors at the time tell their own story.

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An example of Oppengaard and Griger’s storytelling as “world building,” situating the user in virtual time and space alongside the narrative

In terms of usability, both tours allowed the user to situate themselves in historical time and space without having to visit the actual sites and with little technical expertise required.  Once the tours began, the user could move back and forth in the linear story, rewinding to review an image or narration (which one obviously cannot do with a live tour guide), or fast-forwarding to a specific area of interest.  Both tours, however, presented an uncomplicated narrative, which may have been their intention, but which excluded voices that, I believe, would have enriched and enlivened the narrative and allowed for more user access points into the story.

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