Technology & World War I: Then and Now
By Theo Mayer
Chief Technologist, Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission/Doughboy Foundation
“The soldiers rode into World War I on horseback and rode out in tanks and airplanes,” is a popular quote about WWI. "The War that Changed the World" was a driving force for incredible technology advancement and innovation. So it is only fitting that WWI’s remembrance should also be imbued with innovation.
The industrialization of warfare and its horrific destructive forces such as machine guns, poison gas, airplanes, bombs, tanks and submarines were one aspect, but WWI also helped shape the modern world with incredible advancements in medicine, radio, automobiles, even personal technologies like wrist watches, and pocket cameras.
The point of this article is not those 20th century technologies. Instead, we are going to present the new 21st century technologies being used for the remembrance and commemoration of WWI including Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, podcasting, streaming, photogrammetry, 3D printing and more.
Augmented Reality Used for a Virtual Field Trip to the WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In August of 2020, the Doughboy Foundation released a very advanced smartphone app called the: WWI Memorial “Virtual Explorer”. The App allows anyone to take a virtual field trip to the WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C. using a powerful technology called Augmented Reality or AR.
Many people have heard about AR but most people have not used it much. This virtual field trip brings the new National WWI Memorial to living rooms, classrooms and backyards anywhere, in a very realistic and experiential way. It is also filled with stories and information about WWI. Learn more with this video that provides a demonstration, as we explain a bit about AR and follow a group of first-time users, aged 17-48 while they discover and explore the App and its content.
The free WWI Memorial “Virtual Explorer” App is available now on both iOS and Android mobile devices and works on most recent models. You can also find it in your phone’s App store by searching for: WWI Memorial Virtual Explorer or follow these links.
WWI Memorial Visitor App is Awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant
In mid-December we received exciting news. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) awarded the Doughboy Foundation a grant to expand the WWI Memorial AR App to the next stage.
Specifically, we are going to create the: WWI Memorial: “Visitor Guide” Augmented Reality App. It will take lessons learned from the remote “Virtual Explorer” to enhance the experience of in-person visits to the National WWI Memorial in D.C. when it opens to the public in the spring of 2021.
We are bringing many of the content ideas developed for the remote application and re-imagine them for On Site. We are also going to add a few new ideas that are unique to the visitor experience at the live venue.
For example, we will be constructing a 5-story tall virtual timeline… It is a massive aluminum post you can slide up and down with 50+ historical images hanging off spars. Each image brings up a key event and launches a short narrated story of happenings between 1914 and 1919.
Visitors will also be able to place a virtual copy of the massive 58’ bronze statue, “A Soldier’s Journey” onto its base at the Memorial Site while the spectacular sculpture continues to be crafted by master sculptor Sabin Howard and rendered into bronze by the foundry over the next 3 years. More on this later in the article.
We will release sneak previews of WWI Memorial: “Visitor Guide” as the development proceeds.
VR Experience Transports Viewers Into the Nightmarish Hellscape of the Western Front
Dan Carlin is the host and producer for the popular and wonderful Hardcore History® podcasts. A couple of years ago, I started to hear about a WWI Western Front VR experience he was working on. He teamed up with MWM Interactive, a VR production company, and together they created what is now known as: War Remains: “Dan Carlin Presents an Immersive memory” which is going to be installed at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City starting in May 2021.
What’s the difference between Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR)?
The three main differences are hardware, immersivity, and intensity.
Starting with hardware, AR works with the smartphone you probably already carry. The computer-generated AR elements are superimposed on the phone’s camera view and show on the screen as you hold it in front of you.
When you look up from the phone screen, none of it is there. This technology is very new and had its break-through moment in 2016 with the release of a video game called Pokémon-Go. Both Google and Apple have been slowly expanding phone capabilities to place “virtual” objects into the camera views ever since. It is an incredibly compelling capability that is just now coming into its own for literally billions of smartphones capable of using it.
In contrast, for VR you wear special hardware including a display visor that covers your eyes, and closed headphones that cover your ears. The idea is not to “augment” the world around you, but to totally replace it.
This makes the experience fully immersive. The entire world around you is the one the creators define. For the user, the suspension of disbelief is immediate. Your whole body is involved. When you turn your head or body, or look up or down, you are fully immersed in the created world. It is the most completely immersive medium ever created.
This is what leads to the third difference – Intensity.
While AR is compelling, fun, useful and easily dismissed by simply looking up from your phone screen, with VR you are IN the experience until you strip off the hardware. It IS an intense experience. That is what Dan Carlin and the creators of the “War Remains” intend. They endeavor to transport viewers into the nightmarish hellscape of the Western Front during the First World War. They don’t stop at the audio/visual experience, they also built a physical trench as a part of the installation that is in register with the visual, so that as you reach out your hand, you will touch the trench wall and much more. It promises to be intense and memorable.
The installation will be coming to Kansas City in May of 2021 and www.theworldwar.org will be sending out updates for how to make reservations to see it.
Technology and Innovation Meet Traditional Art at the National WWI Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Even the creation of the new National World War I Memorial in D.C. itself has great technology stories from the online international design competition, to the 3D rendered design development, to the more than HD “live” construction camera that has allowed tens of thousands of people to watch.
But perhaps the most interesting technological story of the project has been the integration of the new and the traditional by classicist sculptor Sabin Howard in the realization of the 58-feet long, 38-figure bronze centerpiece of the WWI Memorial: “A Soldier’s Journey”.
It began with Sabin using costumed actors to shoot thousands of frames of reference images using his smartphone. The gallery of smartphone images served Sabin in the process of creating the sketches of the ambitious sculpture using traditional pen and pencil.
It continued as Sabin met WETA Workshop’s cofounder Richard Taylor. Taylor and famed film director Peter Jackson were two of the people who created the New Zealand based special effects studio. Sabin wound up going to New Zealand and using their 3D modeling and 3D rapid prototyping capability to quickly iterate the design, test ideas and refine the sculpture. The technology process saved many months and resulted in a prototype miniature of the sculpture called a Maquette.
The next stage of scaling up the sculpture was also driven by leading edge technology. Sabin took his crew, including a cast of costumed actors to the UK, where an incredible 156 camera “photogrammetry” array had been assembled by Steve Russel Studios at Pangolin Editions, the foundry for the sculpture. Actors were placed in the center of the high-resolution Hasselblad camera array, posed by the sculptor, and then, 156 angles of each pose were captured all at once from all around. Those image groups were composited digitally to yield high resolution 3-D models of the actors’ poses. As 3-D digital puppets, they could then be manipulated and assembled into a super-high-resolution, big brother version of what was done in New Zealand.
When you make a large sculpture the next step after having developed a maquette (miniature) is to create what is called an armature. This is traditionally a wire frame of the sculpture at full scale, built up with clay and finally refined by the sculptor’s hand into the finished work of art.
Using the digital model created with the photogrammetry process, the foundry was then able to generate full scale foam-based armatures of all the figures using a 3D manufacturing process. These full-sized armatures were covered with a thin layer of clay and shipped to Sabin’s studio where the entire process reverted to the classic and traditional process of building up the final sculptures by the artist’s hand and eye.
What technology contributed to the creation of this monumental work of art is profound. Sabin is a classicist sculptor trained to the art by centuries of tradition, skills, methods, and technique.
Though it was a life-changing journey for him, Sabin never compromised his commitment to traditional sculpting and his world-class artistry as he embraced technology. Much the opposite. The sculptor used technology to allow him to define, design, iterate, model, refine and prep the raw foundation of the huge-scaled work of art. Then the process reverted to the mastery of the artist’s hand, eye, heart and soul to render the result.
Sabin’s courageous and uncompromising blending of technology and traditional methods shaved untold years off the process and for those of us who have witnessed the finished sculpted pieces (view video starting at 22:30) that have been shipped back to the foundry to be rendered into bronze – the spectacular results are awe inspiring.
These are just a few examples of how WWI is being remembered through technology. There are many others.
WWI was the “War that Changed the World” in so many ways. It ushered in a modern era of technology and capability. So, of course, it is only fitting that it is being remembered with the same technological fervor which so clearly defined this early 20th century event.