At one part of the Fort York National Historic Site in Toronto, visitors look out to a landscape of urban blight – rail tracks, industrial buildings with graffiti. This spring, visitors to the landmark site will have the option of seeing something very different: That very location as it existed in the 1750s, a sylvan vista, deer frolicking in the woods, while across a stream, a native couple are on a canoe – the man spear-fishing, the woman crooning a song to the fish to rise from the water.
This is the Time Tablet experience, a unique project that will be launched soon. It uses virtual reality or VR technology to create an immersive environment and help the user be part of history itself. It has been created by Toronto-based AWE Company, headed by Indo-Canadian Srinivas Krishna, a tech entrepreneur who was a filmmaker with movies that premiered at prominent festivals like Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival.
As Krishna, originally from Chennai, said, “It does give you an experience of another time, another place, that is very powerful. This is a storytelling platform for sites. The value it brings to these sites is tremendous because it’s hard to get people in there. This really provides a very compelling attraction.”
The hardware involves a customised VR viewer shell based on the open source Google Cardboard, with a smartphone encased inside running an app that generates the experience. “This story spans three centuries across nine acres, complete three-dimensional 360 degree recreations of different moments in time. This is a first of its kind experience,” Krishna said.
There are eight visual modules or VR scenes or exhibits. As visitors don the headset, they can control commands using motions of the head. Markers appear on the screen, and walking towards one unlocks a historic vista.
Among those is the founding of Fort York itself, predecessor of the modern city of Toronto, and being part of the action as soldiers fire muskets to mark the establishment of the garrison in the last decade of the 18th century.
Another exhibit transports visitors to a battle two decades later as an American ship appears in the harbour and the Fort’s defenders fire their cannons as a magazine explodes near them. Visitors can also watch a train chugging by, on the Grand Trunk Express railway line of the 1850s, then the longest such line in the world.
Or walk through the barracks and get an idea of how soldiers and officers lived two centuries ago. In essence, it allows visitors to inhabit another period of time.
Among the striking facets this experience highlights is how the geography of the site has changed. That creek across which the Mississauga First Nations couple canoe no longer exists.
And as Krishna pointed out, “The Fort was built as a defence of the harbour and today there’s no harbour there, the whole land’s been reclaimed.”
The narrative structure of the experience evolved from discussions between Krishna, the management of the site and historians. “There was a large amount of discussion and debate over what the story would be. As an artist, it then became a challenge of how to represent that which would be interesting, visually, aesthetically,” Krishna said.
A design team in Toronto created the look-and-feel, while the animation pipeline flowed from Moppet Studios, based in Panjim, Goa. The technology was developed in collaboration with scientists from Ryerson University in Toronto and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.
Previews run during autumn received raves from the approximately 250 users who were given a sneak peek of the coming attraction.
“It’s location-aware virtual reality. The software platform enables site-specific immersive, experiential storytelling,” Krishna said.
This is a very mobile experience, a walk through history. And given the number of people strolling through the area on a day, it was necessary to carefully lay out the nodes where they could stop and have an encounter with a virtual reality exhibit.
For now, Krishna is looking at expanding the experience to historic locations in the US and Europe. He certainly also has India in mind. He would “love to do” a place like Hampi, and populate it again with a culture that vanished centuries ago.
Virtual reality or VR was to have arrived in the mid-1990s. Tom Clancy wrote a series of NetForce novels set in a worldwide VR web. But computing power didn’t match ambition. Now, two decades later, with even smartphones turning into sophisticated devices with sizeable processing power, VR could make the leap from virtual to reality in 2016.
“I think it’s going to be transformative. It’ll start in 2016 and then start advancing rapidly. It’s a big deal,” said Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford University and a tech evangelist.
Among the game-changing technologies he cites are Oculus Rift, MagicLeap and Microsoft’s HoloLens, each of which may be released this year.
While investing heavily in Oculus VR in 2014, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said of the company’s hardware, “When you put it on, you enter a completely immersive computer-generated environment, like a game or a movie scene or a place far away. The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people. People who try it say it’s different from anything they’ve ever experienced in their lives.”
Google has put money into MagicLeap, which aims to leverage what it describes as “a Dynamic Digitized Lightfield Signal”. Microsoft defines its HoloLens as the “first, fully untethered holographic computer, enabling high-definition holograms to integrate with your world”.
Google already has its open-source Cardboard available. In late 2015, it also released Cardboard Camera app, which allows smartphone users to capture a panoramic vista and while viewed in Cardboard, to turn that into a personal VR memory.
Wadhwa, a tech entrepreneur himself, raves about the near future: “Give it four or five years. This gives us the scale of IMAX and the feel of being in it.”