Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Closest Thing To A Time Machine?

Virtual reality--the technology that allows you to not simply see or read about an event or experience but to actually immerse yourself in it (visually, at least for the moment)--has become the next frontier in media technology.  Its applications are going exponentially.  Initially, the market for VR seemed primarily to be video gamers who wanted a more "real" experience in game-playing.  It has begun to expand beyond that, however.  News organizations such as the New York Times have used it to create VR feature stories, designed to give their readers/viewers more of a you-are-there experience.  And now, it appears that VR can be helpful to the elderly, in enabling them to relive parts of their lives or experience places and events from the past or present, whether new to them or not.  Here is an article about how this has already begun to happen.

For me, as a preservationist, it's not difficult to see how this could be useful.  I currently serve on the board of the Theater Historical Society of America, an organization devoted to archiving various artifacts from historical theaters across the country, as well as publishing stories about those theaters--many of them demolished, but many of them still standing.  Among our archives are photos, and even architectural drawings, of many of these theaters.  In addition, many of our members have first-hand memories of the events that took place in these buildings---not only the shows themselves, but much of what happened behind the scenes backstage and in the offices, as well as in the audiences.

What if THS were to take much of this information and use it to re-create the experiences of being in many of the theaters that are long gone?  What if it were possible to use VR to allow people to "experience" what it was like to be at the opening night of a particular show, or even at the opening night of a particular theater?  What if that experience was expanded further, to allow a viewer to go outside of the theater and immerse himself or herself in the city outside the theater?  The possibilities are quite possibly limitless.

There's always the danger with technology like this that the users will eventually too "cut off" from the actual world around them to live meaningful lives for themselves or others.  That's something to consider, and perhaps reason to temper one's optimism about VR or any similar technology.  But it's certainly not a reason to shun it.  VR has the potential to be the closest thing we will have to a time machine for a very long time.  It has enormous potential as a tool for entertainment, for journalism, and for preservationists who may be able to "save" old buildings electronically even if they cannot do so in reality.  A digital Williamsburg could be a very useful thing.

Perhaps we at THS could help lead the way in making it happen.

No comments: