Vir­tual Walls

Through an as­ton­ish­ingly ac­cu­rate vir­tual re­al­ity tour, Rachel Stern saw Ber­lin’s for­mer di­vide when it was still stand­ing.

Where Berlin - - CONTENTS -

Ex­pe­ri­ence the Ber­lin Wall first hand on a 360-de­gree vir­tual re­al­ity tour. BY RACHEL STERN

I n the sum­mer of 1961, res­i­dents of Ber­nauer Straße in Mitte watched as a gi­ant bar­rier was built down the mid­dle of the street, slowly oblit­er­at­ing their view of the other side. The Ber­lin Wall stood for a full 28 years, split­ting friends, fam­i­lies, and neigh­bors into the cap­i­tal­ist West and com­mu­nist East.

On a frigid Fe­bru­ary af­ter­noon 56 years later, I stood on the same street, which now hosts a 1.4-kilo­me­ter-long me­mo­rial with scat­tered pieces of the once-im­pos­ing bar­rier. Bun­dled-up tourists read me­mo­rial plac­ards de­tail­ing deadly es­cape at­tempts and visit a re­con­structed chapel, once blown up as it stood in con­struc­tion’s way.

As a self-pro­claimed his­tory nerd, I’d vis­ited here many times. Yet even stand­ing amid rem­nants of the past, I had a hard time feel­ing con­nected to it. Sud­denly, how­ever, that changed. I put on a large set of gog­gles to be­gin my first 360-de­gree vir­tual re­al­ity tour, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween When in Ber­lin

Tours and Time Rift Tours. My ex­act lo­ca­tion sud­denly looked and felt like it did in 1965, as I stood eerily alone in the mid­dle of the Death Strip, the pas­sage be­tween ei­ther side of the wall, cov­ered with gravel so that foot­steps would be eas­ily de­tectable. I could see a sol­dier with a gun, stepping out of his mil­i­tary ve­hi­cle and slowly walk­ing to­wards me. Feel­ing un­easy, I glanced to the left where a sharp barbed-wire fence, set to elec­tro­cute any­one who touched it, laced an­other layer of con­crete. The set-up seemed so real that I could even see dark green tree leaves out­side rustling in the wind, and the brown and dingy fa­cades of build­ings to the east were sharp and vivid.

My guide ad­vanced the year to 1979, and sud­denly I no­ticed how much West Ber­lin had de­vel­oped, the pol­ished highrise apart­ment build­ings tow­er­ing above the bor­der, while the un­ren­o­vated, war­dam­aged build­ings to the East re­mained the same.

“Fif­teen years ago [Ber­lin Wall] guides would have had photo al­bums with them, five years ago they would have pulled up pho­tos on a phone, and now we have this in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful prod­uct,” said Brian Fell­busch, co-founder of When in Ber­lin Tours. “From five to 80 years old, peo­ple seem to get it in a way that they couldn’t oth­er­wise.” To date, about 800 peo­ple have gone on the tour, which is of­fered pri­vately or through a group.

The com­pa­nies worked with sev­eral Ber­lin aca­demics to cap­ture the minute de­tails of the past. They didn’t want to triv­i­al­ize it, or turn it into a video game. They wanted a way for peo­ple to re­flect upon his­tory by feel­ing like they had ac­tu­ally lived it. "It’s a se­ri­ous topic, and there are still more walls be­ing con­structed in the world,” said Fell­busch. “If we have pro­voked a con­ver­sa­tion, we feel like we’ve done our job.”

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From top to bot­tom: A view of the Ber­lin Wall; the Chapel of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, used as a tower for snipers be­fore be­ing blown up in 1985; Views of the Death Strip; Visit­ing stu­dents try­ing VR.

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