If you ask Dan Carlin what the worst place on Earth is, you have to go back in time. The answer from the host of the phenomenally entertaining podcast “Hardcore History” is rapid and direct: the Western Front during World War I.
He pauses. “I don’t know if it’s the worst, but it has to be in the top 10,” he says.
We are sitting around outside of the set of “War Remains,” the virtual reality installation (think headset and gloves on something akin to a small movie set) Carlin produced with MWM Immersive, the Dallas-based film and VR studio Flight School and Skywalker Sound.
It is installed at 500 East Fifth St. until Sept. 1.
“I’ve often said I’d love to have a time machine,” Carlin says. Fans of his podcast know that Carlin devoted more than 23 hours of content to World War I, paying special attention to the war’s disastrous, singularly violent and history-altering combination of 19th-century tactics and 20th-century technology.
RELATED: Austinite was second-most decorated World War I soldier
It's a stunning achievement in podcasting and an absolute must-listen for history buffs. ("Hardcore History" covers more, but the World War I series felt like the first time the show got about as in-depth as a show like that possibly could while remaining for a general audience.)
“This is as close as I am going to get to that time machine and an answer to the question, ‘Where is the worst place in the world to be?’” Carlin says.
Several years ago, he had his first virtual reality experience and happened to meet an MWM executive soon after. The exec suggested that Carlin pitch some ideas. So he did: "I pitched something completely different, actually, but we were just spitballing," Carlin says.
The eventual result was “War Remains,” a roughly 12-minute experience that allows you (without giving too much away) to simulate an experience of the war in the air, in the trenches (the rats were a nice touch — literally) and, most disturbingly, on the battlefield.
“Frankly, we had to tone it down,” Carlin says, his voice (familiar to fans) an odd tonal mix of very sincere history teacher and Albert Brooks. (Seriously — once you hear it, you can't unhear it.)
“You can have an exhibit of, you know, 19th-century dentistry as it really was," he says, "but are you going to buy a ticket?” (Note to Dan: There are people who would be into that, yes, but I am not sure that is the exact audience at which you are aiming.)
"People who fought in this war did not talk about things," says Flight School Chief Creative Officer Brandon Oldenburg. "This is a way to give someone a very small taste of what your grandfather or great-grandfather might have experienced."
RELATED: The Vietnam War split Austin wide open during the 1960s
It doesn’t do justice to the soldiers who experienced it to underplay too much, Carlin says, but at the same time, it might be a little too much for folks who have experienced actual combat.
“All we’d have to do to make it more intense is turn up the volume,” Carlin says. In fact, if you stay “inside” for too long, in the tiny room in the trench in which soldiers had to hide from bombardment, sometimes for as long as 24 hours, the volume increases such that it forces you out the “door.”
Carlin is also fond of its possible application as a teaching tool. "Sometimes I think the ability to read is going to be a superpower in about 10 years," Carlin says, "Given the way kids learn and entertain themselves now, this sort of exhibit can certainly be used to learn."
There is a guestbook at the end of the exhibit that is quite striking. It’s full of notes from active duty and retired military thanking those involved for a brief look at just how horrible war is.