Virtual Reality Beyond the ‘Time Machine’ – A Manifesto

from our “Wilde 13” section

Abstract: VR experiences are rapidly developing in many spheres of historical culture. Often promoted as a ‘time machine’, VR reputedly allows users to feel immediacy and an emotional connection to digitally reconstructed spaces and events of the past. Its immersive potential is expected to not only reach new audiences, but to also enable a more engaged involvement with the represented past.
Languages: English

Given the increased popularity of VR as a means of providing access to the past, the ongoing discourse about its potentials and challenges needs to be intensified. Linking the spheres of research and design, with this manifesto we want to spark dialogue and exchange between practitioners and researchers of VR. To this end, we highlight aspects of VR that need more critical discussion in both spheres.

Question VR as a Time Travelling Device

Regenerative VR that intends to reconstruct history is partly based on the idea of using non-invasive approaches to visit historic sites that may have significantly changed through time. These experiences often seek to evoke an “aura of authenticity”. VR’s authenticity claim is linked to a notion of visualisation that seems to offer the ultimate solution to any difficulties of accessing and transmitting the past of a site. It is supposed to give users an experience that feels as if they were in the past.[1] Critics contrast the artificiality of VR with the material traces of the authentic sites, often overlooking that those have experienced severe alterations over time.

VR experiences are models: abstractions based on selected features of “the original”.[2] They are designed for a specific purpose which differs from the purpose of that “original”. Therefore, when VR is used in reconstructions of historical sites, it is important to (a) raise awareness for the affordances of the medium and (b) use VR experiences in settings which give users the opportunity to reflect upon the visualisations and immersive spaces they have experienced. Finally, more attempts should be made to include experimental, artistic or non-realistic scenarios. There are other potentials for VR besides reconstruction!

Question the Use of Photorealism

Using photorealistic visualisation of the past in VR, particularly in narrative-based content, can be problematic. Photorealism hides the process of mediation, potentially leading to misconceptions or the reinforcement of historical inaccuracies. Content creators should carefully assess whether photorealism is necessary and ethical in a particular representation, what purpose it serves, and what effects it may have on users’ perceptions.

By adopting a distinct art style or incorporating abstract elements, visualisations may convey more effectively that they are interpretations rather than seemingly objective reproductions and helps to create a distance to the represented past in a state of immersion. This may reinforce the users’ understanding of visualisations of the past as authored constructions, influenced by the choices of its creators, far from the full complexity of the past.

Problematise VR as an “Empathy Machine”

The idea of VR as a tool that allows users to “walk in someone else’s shoes” needs to be problematised. The representation of difficult histories in VR might potentially lead to traumatic experiences. In addition, VR might be used as an emotion-training device for psychological influence and propaganda.[3]

In their Code of Ethical Conduct for Virtual Reality, Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metziger advise researchers and practitioners to be cautious about the possible lasting effects of experiences made in VR.[4] Projects endorsing the idea of VR as an “empathy machine” have so far mostly concentrated on projective, self-centered empathy. This is problematic because the users’ attention is geared towards what they themselves feel in the present rather than on what people in the past might have felt.[5]

To understand the latter, a capacity for distancing and critical reflection is required, along with an affective engagement, which is where the understanding of empathy as dialogical, other-centered comes in.[6] It allows for a more productive identification with historical human experience, opening spaces “in-between”, where a critical consideration of the experiences of historical “others” is encouraged.[7]

Immersion Should Not be an End in Itself

As an immersive technology, VR allows its users to enter a state of presence: a “state of consciousness, the physical sense of being in the virtual environment”.[8] For many developers reaching a high degree of immersion and presence is a goal. Most contemporary VR experiences concentrate on perceptual or external immersion, meaning the sensory illusion of being present in the virtual environment.

However, depending on the topic and purpose of the VR experience, other forms of immersion might be more fitting. Psychological or internal immersion for example focus on absorption in a narrative, while challenge-based immersion concentrates more on competition and play. In some cases, it might even be the goal to offer as little immersion as possible – for example when a critical evaluation of the represented past is the goal. Immersion should be a means towards an end and not the end in itself.

Use Embodiment and Play

One of the core affordances of VR experiences is its involvement of the body as a learning tool. The concept of embodiment unites both mind and body and hinges on the idea that knowledge is informed by all bodily senses as much as by mental processing.[9] Embodiment and role play as forms of sensory-emotional historical knowledge production are discussed controversially in academia. Body based, experiential knowledge is often situated in opposition to “rational” forms of knowledge production. We argue that if we take a more holistic approach to understanding embodiment we can begin to consider how both affect and criticality can be stimulated to inform each other through careful design work in VR.

This can be exemplified by the use of play. As argued by thinkers like Huizinga,[10] Derrida[11] and Agamben,[12] play involves creating cultures (Huizinga), fostering openness to others and thinking through possibilities without the closed form of narrative finality (Derrida) and political action (Agamben). While “working through”, at least in the psychotherapeutic meaning of the concept, is a process that deals with a personal, traumatic relationship with the past, “playing through” is a process for those distanced from the event trying to figure out how they can relate to it and what it might mean to them. In this sense, play and interaction could also be considered as useful tools for sparking active citizenship.[13]

Interrogate the History of Immersive Techniques

Immersive techniques are anything but new. To better understand how immersion works it is worthwhile to investigate its history. Older media forms, such as, dioramas, panoramas or stereoscopes and practices of de-distancing of past and present such as re-enactment, historical processions, pageants or experimental archaeology already aimed to immerse audiences, spectators, participants, or users in the past.[14]

Reflect on Ownership and Data Use

VR is increasingly being presented through platforms like Meta’s Oculus or YouTube VR. Such platforms track the user’s data, and they use amalgamations of user data to (a) recommend content, (b) create profit, and (c) manipulate behaviour in digital spaces. While it seems difficult to avoid using those platforms if a larger audience is to be reached, an awareness of questions of ownership and data use needs to be part of the design process of VR experiences and research projects analysing those experiences.

Include Users as Participants

In VR, the user is intertwined into the creation of the experiences like in no other medium. The VR experience is not predetermined (unlike in linear media like film), but a product of the iterative mutual interactions of the user and the computer system.

Human and non-human actors like software and hardware are here co-creators of a technical and aesthetic assemblage that forms the digitally generated world. As soon as a virtual element leaves the user’s line of sight, it ceases to exist visually and auditorily and is reduced to algorithmic rules – a mere possibility or idea. Therefore, it might be more fitting to use the concept of the participant rather than that of the user.

However, so far, most VR historical projects treat users like viewers. Interaction and co-creation are still limited. If used correctly, active and enquiry-based learning are powerful pedagogies for transforming users into critical thinkers.

Make VR More Inclusive

So far, VR does not offer an inclusive learning environment. Aside from the cost factor, most VR experiences concentrate too much on the sense of sight and linear storytelling, thus excluding users who are visually impaired or have got a short attention span. VR could be the perfect medium to cater for a more diverse audience.

For one, as VR pioneer Jaron Lanier has shown, it was not vision, but haptics that was at the basis of the idea of VR.[15] One of the appeals of VR is that it allows the user to interact with the virtual environment, an option that is not yet used often enough. Secondly, VR can, in this sense, be used for non-linear storytelling or learning based on the user’s physical exploration of space. Such ‘storyliving’ or learning could easily be combined with other digital or analogue media to create a truly transmedia experience and to cater for different learning styles and interests. Finally, the option of social VR should be taken into consideration more often as it allows for a collaborative learning experience across physical space (and sometimes time).

More User Studies

We still don’t know enough about how VR works in general and with regard to the transmission of historical knowledge in particular. User studies should be a part of the design process of every VR experience. Ethnological as well as psychological research methods can help to gain a better understanding of VR’s impact on historical consciousness and processes of memorialisation of the past.


Further Reading

  • Madary, Michael, and Thomas K. Metzinger. “Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR-Technology.” Frontiers in Robotics and AI 3, no. 3 (2016). DOI: 10.3389/frobt.2016.00003.
  • Kazlauskaite, Ruta. “KNOWING IS SEEING: distance and proximity in affective Virtual Reality History.” Rethinking History 26, no. 1 (2022): 51–70.
  • Belisle, Brooke, and Paul Roquet. “Guest Editors’ Introduction: Virtual reality: immersion and empathy.” Journal of Visual Culture 19, no. 1 (2020): 3–10.

Web Resources


[1] Cf. Felix Zimmermann, “Historical Digital Games as Experiences. How Atmospheres of the Past Satisfy Needs of Authenticity,“ in Game | World | Architectonics. Transdisciplinary Approaches on Structures and Mechanics, Levels and Spaces, Aesthetics and Perception, ed. Marc Bonner (Heidelberg: Heidelberg UP, 2021), 19–34, (last accessed 29.6.2023).
[2] Cf. Herbert Stachowiak, Allgemeine Modelltheorie (Wien [et al.]: Springer, 1973).
[3] Cf. Ruta Kazlauskaitė, “Embodying ressentimentful victimhood: virtual reality re-enactment of the Warsaw uprising in the Second World War Museum in Gdańsk,” in International Journal of Heritage Studies 28/6 (2022), 699–713.
[4] Cf. Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metzinger, “Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR-Technology,” in Frontiers in Robotics and AI 3/3 (2016), (last accessed 29.06.2023).
[5] Cf. Steffi de Jong, “The Simulated Witness. Empathy and Embodiment in VR Experiences of Former Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camps,” in History and Memory 35/1 (2023), 69–107.
[6] Cf. Silke Arnold-De Simine, “Distributed Remembering: Virtual Reality Testimonies and Immersive Witnessing,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Testimony and Culture eds. Sara Jones and Roger Woods (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023), 301–323 and Ruta Kazlauskaitė, “KNOWING IS SEEING: distance and proximity in affective virtual reality history,” in Rethinking History 26/1 (2022), 51–70.
[7] Cf. Victoria Grace Walden, Cinematic Intermedialities and Contemporary Holocaust Memory (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).
[8] Cf. Mel Slater and Sylvia Wilbur, “A Framework for Immersive Virtual Environments (FIVE): Speculations on the Role of Presence in Virtual Environments,” in Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 6/6 (1997), 603–616.
[9] Cf. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
[10] Cf. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (New York: Angelico Press, 2016 [1955]).
[11] Cf. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (London: Routledge, 2021 [1967]).
[12] Cf. Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, (London/New York: Verso Books 1993 [1978]).
[13] Cf. Walden, Cinematic Intermedialities (see fn. 7).
[14] Cf. The Routledge Handbook of Reenactment Studies: Key Terms in the Field eds. Vanessa Agnew, Jonathan Lamb, and Juliane Tomann (Oxon/New York: Routledge 2020).
[15] Cf. Jaron Lanier, Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality (New York: Macmillan, 2017).


Image Credits

“Museum of the Future. Project photo,” 2021/22, © Jonas Zimmer.

Recommended Citation

X-MEM Project Team: Virtual Reality Beyond the ‘Time Machine’ – A Manifesto. In: Public History Weekly 11 (2023) 6, DOI:

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Cord Arendes / Stefanie Samida

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    Digital time travel – An issue between freedom and the need for regulation

    Ever since people began separating their present from the past, there has been an equally great urge to identify and even to seek out this very distant past. World literature, visual art and film are full of such “time traveling” and “time machines”. Their purpose range from escapism to a thirst for adventure to a genuine desire for knowledge, and the target audience has always been conceivably broad: from the masses seeking entertainment at fairs and in blockbuster cinema to the educated middle classes, who, though wanting to distinguish themselves, in the end do exactly the same thing in the costumes and decor of opera or drama. Digital technology has given this quest another tremendous boost. Augmented reality (AR) and even more so virtual reality (VR), often combined with interactive or playful elements, promise immersion in an ever more perfectly staged past. However, it is noticeable that for the first time, learning and education are also clearly being drawn into the debate and, when it comes to digitality, the new technologies are not seldom thought to promise considerable advantages and gains. This is where the Manifesto enters the picture with its targeted thesis.

    The input of history didactics

    As always when entering the realm of historical consciousness and historical education, specific, quite strict standards apply. The creators of applications and programs must no longer focus solely on visual value, harmonious detail, spatial effects and emotional moods. Suddenly – even if those responsible don’t like to hear it – it matters whether the immersion in past worlds still allows multi-perspectivity, whether the journey doesn’t overwhelm thinking and feeling, whether there are places for reflection and contemplation. And it matters particularly whether the perfect illusion of moving in the past respects ethical standards and does not overstep boundaries, which is the case, for example, when past injustice and suffering are abused only for excitement and pleasure today, when discrimination is perpetuated or the memory of the dead is desecrated. This is what the Manifesto is working on, and for this it makes demands. Of course, this is not the first time. A discipline as committed to reflexive analysis, emancipation, and ideology critique as German history didactics is well practiced in applying its quality principles, which are basically applicable to all media of historical learning – from stone tablets with cuneiform writing to historical feature films and history textbooks – in order to answer the ever same guiding questions: Does this material contribute to the formation of a reflected historical consciousness? How is historical judgment to be methodically guided? In what way do the users gain orientation for their lives when dealing with the medium? How, then, can they inscribe themselves, as individuals with desires and aspirations, in history – and how can they themselves contribute to the further development of a liberal-democratic narrative?

    This is not to say that history education has a quick answer for everything. As far as digitality is concerned, it is now able to provide information on social media,[1] in PC games,[2] and in explanatory videos,[3] soon also on ChatGPT.[4] The sensible and reflexive handling of VR and AR, on the other hand, still poses many problems.[5] Together with the authors of the Manifesto we ask ourselves:

    How can users of such applications be protected from the pull that authenticity and the appearance of immediacy exert? How can we ensure that people do not simply believe and take for true what technology makes seem deceptively real? How can the principle be underlined that every, truly every representation of history is a construct encompassing the producer’s intentions, be it honor, profit, dubious ideology, evil demagogy? Neither in the analogue area – e.g. with cuneiform tablets or historical feature films or history textbooks – nor in the digital one have there ever been value-free, perspective-less and truthful narratives, products, media. For value freedom, lack of perspective and truth are themselves only constructs and as ideals to be striven for, but never to be achieved by man (and consequently also never by an AI created by him). In the Manifesto this is correctly captured with the “ownership” of historical knowledge.

    Cognition and emotion: Still a difficult relationship

    Finally, three aspects are specifically addressed: The visuality, the emotional level (empathy), and – indeed especially – the bodily connectedness of history and memory culture. The didactics of history has also been looking at these points for a long time, and here, too, it advises against absolutizing them. History lives on imagination and pictures, but in its expression it remains a narration; feeling and empathy can be goals of historical narration, but these derive from values related to the present; learning with all (physical) senses is an age-old demand of German reform pedagogy, but evidence for its probity is weak in empirical research (unless one constructs a new, again attackable, concept of learning). It simply can’t be that a modern civil society, in a welcome effort to make historical culture more ‘popular’, suddenly lets go of its standards for dealing with history, which it has developed in an often painful process of many decades, even centuries, of reflection, theory-building, and empirical research, simply because new technologies promise the ultimate experience of history. Learning history is still a complex, difficult, exhausting and demanding process that is often not fun; having history involves above all responsibility, self-examination, and morality. These duties cannot be diminished by immersive time travel. If they are, the result should be treated with extreme skepticism. However, digital support is always welcome when it comes to stimulating questions, impulses for self-reflection, and aids to coherent narration.

    [1] Cf. Hannes Burkhardt, Geschichte in den Social Media. Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust in Erinnerungskulturen auf Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest und Instagram (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2021).

    [2] Cf. Daniel Giere, Computerspiele – Medienbildung – historisches Lernen. Zu Repräsentation und Rezeption von Geschichte in digitalen Spielen (Frankfurt a.M.: Wochenschau, 2019).

    [3] Cf. Christian Bunnenberg and Nils Steffen (eds.), Geschichte auf YouTube. Neue Herausforderungen für Geschichtsvermittlung und historische Bildung (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2019).

    [4] Cf. Oliver Held, ChatGPT im Geschichtsunterricht (Frankfurt a.M.: Wochenschau, 2023) (in print).

    [5] Cf. Andreas Neumann and Jörg von Bilavsky (eds.), Geschichte vor Ort und im virtuellen Raum. Einblicke in die Arbeit an der Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen (Wiesbaden: Springer 2022).


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