Right Before Your Eyes: Virtual Reality and Historical Narrative

VR Cartoon

It is interesting how virtual reality (or VR, for short) has resurged in popularity in the same vein of vinyl records, Polaroid cameras, and other tech. The stereotypical heavy goggles people wore to fly at sci-fi conventions have been replaced by mobile phones we can strap to our heads and use just about anywhere.

Along the ranks of social media and video games, VR presents an opportunity for public historians and institutions to tell truly immersive stories.

To explore how organizations try to do this, I examined two different VR projects created in partnership by filmmaker Geoffrey Alan Rhodes and the Chicago History Museum. This project, titled “The Chicago00 Project,” hosts multiple VR exhibitions, as well as a fascinating Augmented Reality project concerning the 1915 SS Eastland Disaster on the Chicago River in the Loop that allows users to view historical photographs grafted onto the city. For more information, I highly recommend reading my classmate Bianca Barcenas’ latest post on her blog.

1929: St. Valentines Day Massacre

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The first of the projects I tried, the St. Valentines Day Massacre, was very engaging and approachable as a rookie-user of VR. The entire presentation takes less than six minutes and can be paused at any time so that viewers can swivel their phone to view the surroundings and the historical pictures grafted onto them.

The project takes full advantage of a three-dimensional perspective. It sets the audience at a street-level point of view of the building in which the mob hit took place, the victims’ bodies, and of the police investigation immediately afterwards. Point-of-view shots, such as one of the crowd outside the crime scene from what appears to be a second-story window, were a nice touch that really made me feel I was actually at the site.

That being said, elements of this exhibit felt exclusive to users with effective VR technology. For example, there were parts in the narration that prompted viewers to turn around to look out a window or examine evidence in a coroner’s office. Though I was able to do so with the functionality of my Samsung Galaxy phone, the lack of a gyroscopic feature on a mobile device or access to VR goggles (such as Oculus) can deprive users of the same experience. For further examples of this, I recommend my colleague Emily Taylor’s post on her blog.

Overall, I was pleased as a user and found that the project functioned well as an exhibit of the infamous mob hit in your pocket.

1968: The DNC Protests


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The next project I tried, a tour of Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, felt like a totally different creature.

Rather than blending historical photos with the landscape, as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre does, the DNC tour displays photos and short clips as portraits set against the buildings and streets captured in their scenes. Combined with the narration, this had the look and feel of  an audio (and visual) tour of a museum.

The narration for this project was notably much longer than the previous project’s–about 15 minutes in total. While I agree with my classmate, Emily Taylor, that the pacing of it could have been much more concise, it did not strongly hurt my experience as a user. Having written my Master’s Thesis on the DNC protests in Lincoln and Grant Parks (among other issues and events), I was fascinated with the details the narrator included to make viewers feel that they were actually in Grant Park. Specific aspects, like the milling around of protesters and pedestrians during speeches and the anger and internal motivations of the police, helped to make the events taking place feel like an unfolding human drama.

That said, I do believe there are elements of this exhibit’s design that limit immersion. The lack of extended video to accompany the audio of police and protesters beginning to clash in the park and on Michigan Avenue, in particular, felt like a missed opportunity to allow viewers to witness the mayhem of that pivotal week in August, 1968.  Combined with a streamlined narration, a more multimedia presentation could go a long way to keep viewers further engaged with the virtual tour.

In spite of the flaws or limits I have mentioned, the potential for drawing the public into historical narrative shines through in Chicago00’s projects. If it were to improve their design and perhaps better instruct how to access and use VR technology through phones or other devices, Chicago00 and other initiatives like it could stoke a public interest in the stories they have to tell by making users feel personally involved and present in the past.


“The Chicago00 Project: Chicago History Experiences”




Published by bensleyhistoryhivemindloyola

Hi there--welcome to my blog! My name is Lucas Bensley. At the time of writing (August of 2018), I am a doctoral candidate for the History department at Loyola University in Chicago. This blog began as an ongoing project for a course titled "Public History New Media/Introduction to Digital Humanities," under the direction of Professor Kyle Roberts. My objective then, as now, is to not just provide posts, updates, and writings that fulfill the requirements of that course, but to periodically keep you--the reader--informed of developments I make in my research-strewn trek to become an educator and researcher of 20th century American history and politics, as well as any interesting kernels of information related to events known and obscure that may be of public interest and use. As I write this prologue, I retain doubts over what the utility of this blog will ultimately be--not just to myself but to my potential audience. Still, that is a constant concern that faces scholars of all fields and media. Given the increasingly digital and instant gratification-driven nature of our information sharing devices and habits, however, I cannot invent nor support an argument against trying to contribute into this global web (or hivemind) of ideas and data born of collaboration, conversation, and consumption. With discipline and your help, I hope to maintain this blog as a place of idea-sharing and mutual inspiration for scholars, students, and normal folk outside of academia. With that said, let's get to work!

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