VR took me to the past — and the future

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I was more than a little startled when Konrad Adenauer approached me in the Old Market.

Sure, I was visiting Cologne, Germany, Adenauer’s hometown. But I had never imagined I’d lay eyes on the German republic’s first post-war chancellor — much less get a wave from him.

Not least because he died six years before I was born.

But I had traveled back to 1926, when Adenauer was Cologne’s mayor, courtesy of TimeRide, a virtual reality tour.

I’m not much for tourist attractions, which TimeRide — which also operates in Dresden, Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt — most certainly is. But my colleagues at a Cologne-based democracy NGO suggested I try it. I’m glad I did.

Because TimeRide suggests possibilities for remembrance of difficult pasts — and for how communities envision their democratic futures.

The idea of using virtual reality to document horrors is not new. The state of Bavaria created a virtual reality version of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp to assist with the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. And VR has become an important tool for memorialization genocide — notably with the recent Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center exhibition The Journey Back.

And VR represents a crucial form of historical preservation, by re-creating o structures and spaces that are lost or damaged, like ancient sites destroyed during warfare in Syria and Iraq.

But such VR projects have also raised questions. Can there be equal access to history if it’s tied to an expensive technology? Could “virtually real” representations of concentration camps or war force people to relieve old traumas — or cause new ones? Might virtual reality technologies be manipulated in service of false narratives that incite violence or undermine democracy?

These risks are real, but so is the power of the technology to construct memory. TimeRide succeeds because it does something elemental — it shows just how much human actions can destroy our communities.

I found TimeRide more haunting than some war and Holocaust exhibitions precisely because it does not show you horrors. Instead, it takes you on a tour of interwar Cologne, in a moment of Golden Twenties bloom. After I paid my 24 euros, boarded the stationary streetcar inside an Old Market storefront, and put on the VR headset, I was back in 1926.

Over 45 minutes, the ride recreates some 2,000 buildings and more than 3,000 people, among them Mayor Adenauer. You wind through several neighborhoods, including the Jewish Quarter, before finishing at a Carnival parade.

But the greatest power of the ride comes once it’s over, and you walk out into the Old Market, look anew at the city, and recognize just how fragile it all is.

Yes, the Rathaus — the old city hall — is visible, as is Cologne’s famous cathedral. But of the 2,000 buildings in the virtual reality, just 26 still exist, because of the horrors of the Nazis, genocide, and war.

Walking around Cologne, dazed, I found myself thinking of how virtual reality might help us see how we impact the world.

Imagine if we could take a boat through the Amazon of 1823, or lace up virtual snow shoes to cross melted glaciers. Could we see the indigenous communities destroyed in previous centuries? Could we visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki before the bombs? Could we go back just two years ago to Mariupol before the Russian military destroyed it?

Back home in L.A., I want virtual reality to take me to the great neighborhoods we’ve bulldozed — the Old Chinatown obliterated for a train station, or the Chavez Ravine evacuated to build Dodger Stadium.

Even more than that, I want virtual technologies to show us different futures. This way, everyday people can deliberate and vote on what gets lost, what stays, and what gets built — and all the power doesn’t belong to those with the capacity to destroy nearly everything you can see.

Joe Mathews is California columnist and democracy editor at Zócalo Public Square.

This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: VR took me to the past — and the future