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Explore the Battle of Normandy through VR for D-Day's 75th anniversary

Valour Canada has designed a virtual reality experience to teach young Canadians about their country's involvement in the Battle of Normandy and the landings at Juno Beach.

New experience meant to connect young Canadians with veterans' stories

Juno 75VR allows people to learn the history of the Battle of Normandy and the landings at Juno Beach during the Second World War in virtual reality. (Valour Canada)

You're standing at Longues-Sur-Mer, in front of the battery, staring down a 150 mm navy gun German soldiers planned to use to fire at incoming landing craft as part of the Atlantic Wall — the Nazis coastal defense system.

In the distance, you can hear seagulls and waves crashing on the beaches of Normandy. A French-accented voice asks if you want to proceed to the lookout bunker where the artillery was directed. 

That is, until you pull off your virtual reality headset.

"People are generally overwhelmed" when they first pull try out the new educational tool, says Peter Boyle.

Peter Boyle with Valour Canada says the virtual reality experience is intended to engage young Canadians with what happened at the Battle of Normandy. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Boyle is the president of Valour Canada, a national non-profit that designed the Juno 75VR experience to teach young Canadians about their country's involvement in the Battle of Normandy and the landings at Juno Beach.

"They're immersed completely in the environment. They're sort of blown away."

I believe that it's become so abstract and so distant that kids are not going to be engaged with military history unless you find ways to really get them involved.- Peter Boyle, Valour Canada

The experience, which can be viewed either with VR googles or online via smartphone, tablet or computer, launched Wednesday — the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy, often referred to as D-Day.

During the operation, 14,000 Canadian troops stormed Juno Beach in a battle that was part of the journey to liberating Europe from Nazi control.

Boyle says Juno 75VR allows people to access the Battle of Normandy from the landing of paratroopers on the night of June 5, 1944, to the closing of the Falaise Gap, which was a victory for Allied forces.

It merges components like drone videos of the historic sites with interviews with veterans and historical photos. 

"The ability to connect the personal stories of the veterans who fought there with the geography and immerse those kids in that environment is a really engaging way for them to learn about the history," says Boyle.

He says as fewer and fewer veterans are still with us, finding ways to tell their stories is becoming increasingly important.

"I believe that it's become so abstract and so distant that kids are not going to be engaged with military history unless you find ways to really get them involved."

On D-Day alone, 359 Canadian soldiers were killed and another 715 wounded. More than 5,000 died during the fighting in Normandy.

The VR experience starts at Longues-Sur-Mer, and also takes viewers to locations like the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, where more than 2,000 Canadians are buried, and Arromanches, where an artificial harbour was constructed and used until a port was captured.

Valour Canada plans to expand the VR program past D-Day over the next few years to include the entire Canadian experience in northwest Europe in the Second World War. 

The 360⁰ virtual reality experience allows Canadians to travel along Juno Beach. (Valour Canada)

With files from Dave Gilson

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