Ottawa company brings Battle of Vimy Ridge to life with virtual reality experience
Matt Thomas (right), SimWave Consulting's head of business development, tries a prototype of the Vimy Ridge virtual reality experience at the company's office in Ottawa on March 15, 2017. (Dario Balca / CTVNews.ca)
Published Friday, April 7, 2017 6:00AM EDT
The thunderous sound of artillery fire, the smell of dank, muddy trenches, the unnerving sensation of a bullet whizzing by--these are just some of the sights and sounds Canadian troops would have experienced during the iconic Battle of Vimy Ridge in April of 1917.
For most of us, these images were only accessible through the pages in high school history textbooks, films and the occasional museum visit.
But 7,500 Canadian students visiting France for the battle’s 100th anniversary will have the opportunity to come much closer to reliving the events thanks to an Ottawa tech company that is bringing the battle back to life with what it calls a “4-dimensional” virtual reality experience.
SimWave Consulting has developed a booth that uses technology including an Oculus headset, speakers, air compressors and fans to immerse participants in a digital environment that simulates the experience of the battle. The students will be able to try the simulation when they visit the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France until April 12.
“It teaches you so much and it gives you much more of an idea of what (the First) World War was like, rather than looking at black and white photos and text,” Matt Thomas, SimWave’s head of business development told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview from Ottawa. “If you experience something, you’re definitely going to remember more than if you’re just reading about it.”
The VR experience puts the user in the boots of a Canadian soldier during the battle. It begins with infantrymen, Lee-Enfield rifles in hand, climbing over the trench into No Man’s Land to begin their advance towards the ridge.
A screenshot from SimWave's Vimy Ridge virtual reality experience is seen in this provided image. (SimWave Consulting)
The booth uses a wide array of technology to recreate the sights, sounds, sensations and even smells Canadian soldiers would have likely experienced during the bloody four-day battle.
An Oculus headset provides the visuals for the experience, while compressors create bursts of air that mimic bullets whizzing by the user as they make their way towards the ridge. The floor of the booth consists of a floating platform equipped with low-frequency transducers that recreate the rumbling sensation soldiers would have experienced as a result of Vimy’s famous “creeping barrage”--a tactic that involved a precise line of artillery fire that moved ahead of Canadian infantrymen at a set rate. Specialized devices mimic the heat caused by the explosions and the scents of gunpowder and mud.
The nozzle of an air compressor used in SimWave's Vimy Ridge VR experience is seen at the company's office in Ottawa on March 15, 2017. (Dario Balca / CTVNews.ca)
“The brain kind of tricks itself into believing it’s real,” Thomas said. “These 4D effects make it that much more immersive and make the person feel like they’re actually there.”
Between April 5 and 12, the students will be taking part in the Vimy 100 Artois Expo put on by EF Educational Tours, a company that designs experiential learning packages around the world.
EF has partnered with dozens other organizations to present the history of the battle from different perspectives and field of study, including art from the war, archeology, personal stories of soldiers and even cooking.
SimWave's Vimy Ridge virtual reality booth is seen in this provided image. (SimWave Consulting)
Organizers say the SimWave simulation “brings it all together” for students.
“We really wanted to a create an immersive Vimy experience for these…youths that was over and above just visiting cemeteries and sites of memorialization,” Laura Palma, EF’s director of educational programming, told CTVNews.ca. “SimWave…fit really nicely as a self-directed experience of the past, present and future.”
The tech company travelled to France with two stripped-down versions of the booth that include the Oculus headset, sound system and the “rumbling platform” that recreates the feeling of shelling.
SimWave's Matt Thomas (left) and Justin Wilkinson are seen packing up parts of the company's Vimy Ridge virtual reality experience at the company's office in Ottawa on March 15, 2017. (Dario Balca / CTVNews.ca)
SimWave’s designers and developers worked closely with historians at the Canadian War Museum to ensure the historical accuracy of the experience and to develop a storyline.
The museum also provided much of the reference material SimWave used to accurately recreate everything from the scenery, to the weapons and uniforms seen in the VR experience.
Thomas said SimWave focused on making the experience, while not lacking in intensity, educational without being unnecessarily gratuitous.
The end of the simulation brings the user to a peaceful, modern-day scene at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, where they can walk around the monument and read about it and Canada’s involvement in the battle. The monument pays tribute to the 11,285 Canadians who died in France during the war. Nearly 3,600 died at Vimy alone, making the battle one of Canada's costliest engagements in the First World War.
Technology of the future
In 2015, SimWave received $400,000 from the Canada Media Fund, a government-subsidized initiative aimed at helping finance and develop Canadian content. The tech company set out to develop two VR experiences—the Vimy Ridge experience in collaboration with the War Museum and a simulation of the CN-6400 steam locomotive for the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.
The VR booth has already become part of the First World War exhibit at The Royal Canadian Regiment Museum in London, Ont. While this is currently the only Vimy Ridge VR experience accessible to the public, Thomas said SimWave could build more simulations tailored to prospective clients’ needs.
The War Museum said the simulation could become a valuable part of its programming.
“It really draws on your emotions,” said Caroline Dromaguet, the museum’s manager of exhibitions and strategic initiatives. “You do get a feeling of really being there, so if you’ve had a chance to see our exhibitions…and then finally experience that VR, I think it’s a very complete experience.”