Tunnel Vision

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The Vauquois Experience Exhibit provides both a virtual and physical tour of historic World War I tunnels.

Once a picturesque village in northeastern France with views of lush fields extending several miles to the edge of the Argonne Forest, Vauquois was transformed into a devastated World War I battleground — both above and below the Earth’s surface.

From 1914 to 1918, the French and Germans fiercely fought for domination of this strategic hill. When the above-ground engagement made no progress, soldiers from both sides dug tunnels with the goal of destroying their enemy with underground explosives.

During receptions on Feb. 13 from 1:30 to 3 p.m. and Feb. 27 from 1:30 to 3 p.m. on the fourth floor of Newman Library, visitors are able to explore these historic tunnels through virtual-reality technology and a physical replica in The Vauquois Experience exhibit.

In April, the exhibit will make its way to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., as part of the 2019 ACCelerate festival to further share the experiences of the soldiers who lived and fought in the Vauquois tunnels.

The Vauquois project began in 2016 with the help of a grant from the Institute for Creative Arts and Technology. Todd Ogle, University Libraries executive director of Applied Research in Immersive Environments and Simulations, and his colleagues on the VT Visualizing History Team traveled to the area of Vauquois to document, scan, and photograph the surface topography and tunnel interiors and unique features.

“All of this is rolled together to create an immersive environment that allows people to learn what it was like to be there at Vauquois before and during the war — going from a peaceful village on a hilltop to a destroyed landscape with a vast array of tunnels underneath,” said Ogle.

School of Education Professor David Hicks is also a member of the team.

“The VT Visualizing History Team’s goal has been to create an immersive, place-based experience that makes the invisible past visible for people today,” said Hicks. “Our work is guided by a single question: If this place could talk, what would it tell us about the nature and impact of World War I on the people, places, and environment on the Western Front in France?”

Scott Fralin, University Libraries exhibits curator and learning environments librarian, created the physical setting for the virtual experience. “My role is to take the virtual world of Vauquois and merge it with the physical world so that the experience is seamless,” said Fralin.

While moving through the exhibit’s tunnel replica, visitors will see and feel the rough walls with faces carved into them, just as they were felt by the soldiers.

For the two years he has been working on the project, School of Visual Arts Assistant Professor Zach Duer has used his art expertise to make the virtual realm a more immersive and realistic environment.

“This isn’t just about showing someone a tunnel from World War I and putting it in a textbook. It’s about helping you feel like you’re there and understand what the soldiers went through,” said Duer. “It’s about empathy as much as it is about information and history.”

“I’ve been working on this project for about two-and-a-half years,” said Duer. “I bring a visual-arts perspective to how we can work with historians, educators, and geographers to infuse an artistic aspect into an educational simulation.”

Dillon Cutaiar, a junior majoring in computer science, collaborated with Duer in calibrating the angle of the tunnel using passive haptics.

“When you start the experience, the tunnel is lined up with where you’re looking,” said Cutaiar. “In virtual reality, we make low-fidelity objects from Vauquois scans more vivid. For example, we programmed a complicated lantern with a light on it that you can swing around and light your way. By carrying around this lantern, you feel more there.”

This project is an example of what can happen when students and faculty from technical, artistic, and humanities-based disciplines collaborate to create something more than a sum of its parts.

“This project would not have been possible without the efforts of teams of undergraduate and graduate students who are authentically engaged in international transdisciplinary research to showcase a project that stresses pushing the boundaries of virtual-reality technologies,” said Thomas Tucker, associate professor in the School of Visual Arts.

Through a University Libraries collaboration with Blacksburg Middle School, middle school students are also experiencing this important battleground through the VT Visualizing History Team’s virtual-reality Vauquois program and the middle school’s virtual-reality laboratory, which was built by Jonathan Bradley of the University Libraries Virtual Environments Studio.

“Projects like these fit in University Libraries’ mission because we are collecting information or data and exploring it in a virtual way,” said Ogle. “University Libraries has a robust digital library, and preserving this information in our archive helps future researchers search for corroboration of evidence and examine the information in ways it hasn’t been examined before.

“This is an example of what the Virginia Tech’s Creativity and Innovation District — which includes University Libraries’ Newman Library — is all about.”

Written by Ann Brown