Virtual Perceptions was invited to see Virtually History: The Berlin Wall, a 360 experience that tells the story of the Iron Curtain. Created in collaboration with Remarkable and YouTube Originals, the short pieces were designed as though users can step into a photograph of the past.
While simple, the videos offer a compelling and engaging way to learn about the Berlin Wall, which we recommend anyone to watch.
The story of the Berlin Wall
The creatives gave a preamble before the viewing, outlining their intentions of creating an educational way of learning about East and West Germany. All the experiences offer different perspectives of the people living through the event. One shows a family running away before the wall fell down. Another a group digging a tunnel under the deathstrip. A tough, repressed struggle marked those on both sides, as loved ones split and remained apart.
The images we were transported into were fascinating – we got to experience powerful situations such as a family fleeing from their home through their window, the strip known as the death zone (check before publishing), and an image was taken the day the wall fell.
The probably most remarkable photograph brought to life for this project is probably the one of a man digging a tunnel. Klaus Keussler, a student in West Germany at the time, and his friends worked for months to build a tunnel to East Germany, to build an escape route. The tunnel became known as Tunnel 57 (named after the number of people who escaped through it).
Building such a tunnel was highly dangerous, as it was prone to flooding, could collapse at any time, and of course, highly forbidden. The experience not only make the photo of Klaus digging the tunnel come to live, it also transports the viewer into the bottom of the tunnel. Hearing that a tunnel is just about wide enough for one person to slither through on hands and knees is one thing, but getting to ‘stand’ in it in VR brings the matter close to an audience than any history or regular documentary can.
While experiencing and having a look around the colourised images, ambient noise is played, and, just like in a traditional documentary, a narrator tells the story around the image and gives historical context. Experiencing history by stepping into a picture is definitely an experience that makes a long-lasting impression, especially when it covers a tumultuous and complex time in history such as the Iron Curtain.
Using 360 technology
A key question is, why 360 video? What does the experience give that books and films cannot? While simple, the illusion of immersion is powerful. Though the images do not move, the small and subtle sounds used – the shovel of dirt, the clatter of running shoes – makes the still photographs feel more alive.
The experience is certainly a step up from reading a book; no book can recreate the cries of a mother’s grief. But a documentary provides a compelling way to learn about the Berlin Wall, where archive footage and testimonials make a recent historical event feel more alive. If comparing between the two, Virtually History: The Berlin Wall matches that of any great documentary on the same subject.
But perhaps that’s not the best way to think of it, as a directly comparable piece. Instead, perhaps it should be a supplement, an addition to an education on the Berlin Wall. Textbooks can give an overview, and documentaries can go into greater detail, but even a great documentary cannot quite capture being inside Tunnel 57. That inclusiveness, though simple, is an effective storytelling technique.
The fall of the Iron Curtain
Virtually History: The Berlin Wall offers several short and engaging pieces on a fascinating period in history. Snippets into people’s lives offer colour to a grey period, as people bring the stories to life.
Though simple, the films are effective. For creatives working in the industry, it shows how simple approaches can have powerful effects on viewers.
Reporter, Virtual Perceptions
Lena Mandahus is a graduate from the University of Vienna, with experience copyediting articles.