The devastation of nuclear war is VR's latest reality check

"The Day the World Changed" is both memorial and lecture.

Whether it's a face-to-face encounter with a shark or being in a Syrian city during an air raid, VR is bringing us experiences that we might otherwise never have. One such example is the burned-out shell of a dome that was right under the atomic bomb that America dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. In The Day the World Changed, not only are you placed in this bombed-out structure, you're also invited to interact with ghostly floating artifacts that were recovered from the site. The idea is that by witnessing the effects of such devastation, you'll at least learn something, if not be so moved that you join a campaign to abolish nuclear weapons.

Premiering at Tribeca Film Festival 2018, The Day the World Changed is a collaboration between startup studio Tomorrow Never Knows, ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) and the Nobel Media group. It's a moody, somber experience that questions the world's military powers and their obsession with nuclear weaponry. "We want this to be an unwavering, uncomfortable experience for people," said Saschka Unseld, the project's co-creator.

Fellow creator Gabo Arora said, "We are living in a time when our Commander-in-Chief and leaders of other nations are openly calling for more nuclear weapons, taunting each other over their capabilities."

But it's not just about calling for an end to the nuclear arms race -- it's also about the people affected by the bombs in 1945. "Our intention with this work is to give voice to those victims of nuclear war asking the world to face this shared history and to recognize the true horror of these weapons," Arora said.

As I looked around the skeleton of the building, ashes fluttered by, settling on the debris-covered ground. Two other festival attendees were in the simulation with me, and in the virtual dome, all I could see of them were silhouettes that were eerily reminiscent of nuclear shadows. Through the ominous background music, I heard a disembodied voice to my right, and turned to see that it was coming from a floating satchel. One of the other participants and I walked over to it and, using the pair of controllers we held, swiped at the bag to get it to move. It didn't do much other than spin in mid-air, and the closer I got to it, the louder the voice grew as it narrated the origin of the item. I won't spoil it for you, but it belonged to someone killed the day the bomb fell.

After awhile, the objects faded away, and an orb appeared in the middle of the room, showing a man as he recounted his harrowing story. This was the strongest part of the whole experience. His account of how him and his classmates were trapped waiting for rescue is haunting and heartbreaking and reminds viewers of the terribly high cost of such destruction.

In this version of The Day the World Changed, there were only three artifacts available, but the team wants to keep adding more items and stories. Unseld told Engadget that the goal is to have a more-permanent experience outside the context of a festival, where his team can integrate more objects and participants. Tomorrow Never Knows worked with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum in Japan to obtain these artifacts and their origins, and there are dozens more items to consider for inclusion. "It's about finding the right stories," Unseld said. If the team is able to add more concurrent viewers in larger scale fixed installations in future, Unseld hopes it will create a sort of communal learning experience.

In the end, The Day the World Changed theorizes what could happen if the current race doesn't end, hoping to impress on its audience that they have the power to prevent a gruesome outcome. Unseld recommends people go to the ICAN website to find out how to support local chapters and keep up on news about upcoming bills and other projects.

"It's important to remember that the amount of nuclear weapons that the world has is based on this original moment of fear," Unseld said, "And that we still live in the shadow of that fear."

Even if it makes no impact on the campaign to abolish nuclear warfare, The Day the World Changed will still leave a legacy as an immersive record of what happened. "Especially now, as the last survivors of Hiroshima are passing away, I think it's more important than ever to keep these stories alive so that we can learn from them," Unseld said.

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