Gamescom’s taking place in Germany this week, and both Brad Chacos and I are over here to cover it—and, of course, to cover Nvidia’s new 20-series graphics cards. But while Brad was busy with that on Monday, I had the day free to look around Cologne. I did the usual tourist rounds, saw the cathedral, looked at the old Roman walls.
As I was panning across Google Maps though I spotted something unique: “TimeRide VR.” Of course I went.
Never too late
I’ve written quite a bit about virtual reality and tourism, but usually from the confines of my own apartment. Google Earth VR, for instance, is a fantastic tool. Slip on an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive and you can be anywhere, from San Francisco to Rio to Berlin to Tokyo. I’ve used it to visit famous landmarks, reawaken memories of old trips, and even to plan new vacations, all from home.
But here I was in Cologne, already a tourist. TimeRide VR doesn’t promise a trip through space, but rather through time—to Cologne circa 1909, when it looked quite a bit different.
Cologne’s actually the best-case scenario for an attraction like TimeRide. Like many German cities, Cologne was devastated by World War II bombing runs. The towering spires of its famed cathedral were a fantastic landmark for Allied pilots, and the city center was practically leveled.
The result? Cologne now looks nothing like Cologne a hundred years ago. A few sections survived, mostly the churches and a handful of meticulously rebuilt plazas—including Alter Markt, the “Old Market” where TimeRide is located. For the most part it’s a city of the ‘50s and ‘60s though, with lots of concrete and metal, flat buildings with small windows.
Thus TimeRide and its VR suite can offer tourists a vision of Cologne like no other. It’s fascinating! If you promised to show me Paris circa 1909, sure I’d be interested, but aside from the cars and the asphalt not a lot has changed there. But Cologne? The entire look and feel of the city is different.
So I paid for my TimeRide ticket, 12 euros. It’s a three-part experience, though only the last is in VR. The first two parts seemingly exist mostly to pad out your time and make you feel like it was money well spent.
The first is just a holding pen with a half dozen stereoscopic pictures from the early 1900s—though the exhibit does make a point of educating visitors on the similarities between those early stereoscopic images and VR headsets today. “In stereoscopic pictures they could view foreign people, cities far away and exotic places. Taking a trip to those places was unachievable for most people, and the kaiserpanorama [stereoscopic imaging machine] enabled them to look beyond their own backyards into the world.” Sound familiar?
We were led into a small movie theater next, and this proved more useful. Here, TimeRide rolled old film footage of Cologne, both from the early 1900s and from World War II. Witness, as charming tree-lined plazas and medieval-style houses give way to bombed out ruins, centuries of a city’s evolution reset to zero.
The movie theater also played a short clip instructing people on how to use an Oculus Rift. It was interesting: Fully two thirds of the people I saw at TimeRide were, I’d guess, in their 60s and 70s. I assume they’re the most likely to join tour groups, and those tour groups have some deal with TimeRide, but even so it was interesting to see a very different demographic from the usual “VR Games” crowd try on an Oculus Rift, probably in most cases for the first time ever.
In any case, we then moved on to the VR portion. What surprised me most is it was good. I fully expected a janky cash-grab of an experience, and while TimeRide’s budget certainly isn’t on par with Uncharted or Red Dead, I was still impressed by the work that went into it.
Like many cities, Cologne had electric streetcars in the early 1900s. We sat in a reproduction street car, and each unit was set up to recreate your position on either the left or right side. The reproduction tram also vibrated when it was “moving,” and blew wind in your face—crude but effective haptic feedback. I’ll say this: Nobody got sick.
It’s boring to simply describe watching something in VR, so I’ll try and keep it short. We rolled through the central tourist area in Cologne, down the waterfront, past the cathedral, and then up to the Old Market, seeing the area as it looked in 1909. It was a lively recreation too, with people walking up and down the street, police chasing a thief, a drunk man falling into the Rhine, and so on. Hand-painted signs marked bakeries and beer houses. The architecture was completely different, reminiscent of Bruges or other European cities that survived the two World Wars relatively unscathed.
Sure, there are some obvious constraints. Whoever worked on this experience didn’t fully model the cathedral, and it’s very obviously pasted into the skybox. And hey, they’re not going to win any awards for visual fidelity. Like a lot of these educational experiences, it looks like it was made in Unity with a shoestring budget.
The idea holds promise though. Finishing the “ride” in Alter Markt, then walking outside and seeing the same sites 109 years and some questionable architecture choices later, it was fascinating. Intuitive too, I might add—much more than seeing a handful of photographs in a museum and trying to piece together the same impressions.
As always I’m left advocating for VR as an educational medium. TimeRide isn’t the only experience of its kind, and there are actually a bunch I’d recommend that don’t require, you know, flying to Cologne. Apollo 11 VR and Titanic VR are great, as are VR Battleship Yamato and Historium VR (the latter of which actually covers the history of Bruges).
Home use VR isn’t taking off though, and so I’d love to see more installations like TimeRide. VR arcades are great and all, and games are bound to remain a focus for the medium, but a well-done educational experience proves its worth a hundred times over. TimeRide is a bit of a tourist trap, sure, but where are museums on this front? Why aren’t we seeing them invest in similar experiences? Imagine visiting—to pull another example from Cologne—the Roman-Germanic Museum, seeing the ruins contained within, and then being able to walk around a digital recreation of those streets two millennia ago.
As TimeRide puts it, “With virtual reality, we now have the means to close in on the perfect illusion of time travel.” Let’s use it.