President Harry Truman Returns to RAF Harrowbeer (Yelverton) – Virtually!

Researchers from the University of Birmingham’s Human Interface Technologies (HIT) Team have successfully staged a demonstration of Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) technologies at the old airfield of RAF Harrowbeer in Yelverton, by bringing US President Harry Truman and his famous Douglas  VC-54C aircraft, nicknamed the Sacred Cow (the forerunner of Airforce One), back to Devon one last time.

On 02 August, 1945, President Truman was returning to the USA from Potsdam in Germany - an important conference, the outcome of which – with Truman holding a trump card in his hands in the shape of the US’s new atomic bomb - was to shape the nature of that country – and a significant part of Europe, for that matter between the US, UK and USSR for many decade to come.  The original flight plan was for the Sacred Cow to land at RAF St Mawgan near Newquay in Cornwall and, following a US Military reception, to travel by motorcade through numerous towns back to Plymouth.  There the President would be taken by barge out to the USS Augusta, anchored in Plymouth Sound in preparation for a meeting with King George VI However, dense fog patches were in evident over the southern part of England and this state of affairs prompted the President, having seen a break in the weather, to request a landing at Harrowbeer instead (actually saving him two hours of road travel into the bargain!).  See also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pR8ww9NZoGg.

President Harry Truman Returns to RAF Harrowbeer

The idea of using VR and AR techniques to bring Harry Truman back to Harrowbeer one more time was conceived by Professor Bob Stone, the HIT Team’s Director.  Of the project, Stone said, “we have been undertaking many VR and AR projects in the Yelverton and Burrator area over the past three years, from recreation of old railway lines to long-abandoned manor houses.  We experimented with a simple AR representation of a Lancaster bomber flying over Burrator Reservoir Dam a short time ago, but this visit of a former US President in the fore-runner of Air Force One, for me, was a real challenge – to recreate something that local townsfolk or even people visiting the area may not even be aware of!”

Augmented Reality is a technique whereby it is possible bring computer-generated 3D (or “virtual”) models of objects, sites and characters into the real-world, by using computerised recognition of scenes or special markers to project the models accurately, and in real-time, onto a video camera view of the real-world scene.  Then, using animation techniques – in this case, the shutting down of the turboprop engines, the opening of the aircraft door and the motions of the virtual President – the aim is to create the illusion that the 3D model is actually present in the scene.  Increasingly AR is becoming an important technique in bringing history to life and making historical education much more engaging and interesting for individuals of all ages and backgrounds.

The HIT Team researchers demonstrated the AR scenario at the annual 1940s event held at the site of the old RAF Harrowbeer airfield, together with other VR recreations of local scenes, including a Spitfire fly-past of the long-abandoned GWR halt at Burrator & Sheepstor.  Michael Hayes, owner of the popular Knightstone Tea Rooms and RAF Harrowbeer’s Archivist of over 18 years, said, “I often stand on the old airfield and try to imagine what went on and who did what and where.  With this impressive technology from the University of Birmingham, those imaginary scenes can now come to life.  It would be great if we could create a complete Virtual Reality model of Harrowbeer, turning back time to witness the events that helped keep this country free”.

For further information, contact Bob Stone at r.j.stone@bham.ac.uk, or on (07740) 858901.

About the HIT Team

The University of Birmingham’s HIT Team, based in the School of Electronic, Electrical & Systems Engineering, has been pioneering the development and uptake of interactive media and telerobotic technologies in the UK since 2003, building on nearly 3 decades of experience in the domain of Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality and Telerobotics/Telepresence.  The Team’s participation within the UK’s Human Factors Integration Defence Technology Centre (HFI DTC) between 2003 and 2012, and, more recently collaborative initiatives addressing future human-system interfaces for command and control in defence, aerospace and unmanned systems, continues to provide excellent opportunities to work closely with stakeholders and end users in the development of methodologies supporting human-centred design for advanced part-task trainers, visualisation techniques and novel human interface concepts for telerobotic systems.

In the healthcare domain, the HIT Team has been developing interactive data display and data input modules for the investigation of Virtual Restorative Environments and their impact on patient wellbeing (including sleep quality and delirium reduction), especially in Intensive Care.  Additional projects are expanding the capabilities of these modules to take advantage of – where appropriate – new interactive devices (such as those emerging from “crowd-funding” sources) and to develop innovative and ergonomically acceptable methods of interfacing with virtual environments.  These are being investigated to support motivational rehabilitation for amputees, incentive spirometry for patients being weaned off mechanical ventilation and novel ICU patient communications techniques.  The HIT Team is also embarking on a parallel set of activities addressing the use of restorative virtual environments to support the care of dementia patients.

More recently, the HIT Team has become increasingly involved in projects to recreate sites and artefacts relating to industrial and maritime archaeology, as these fields are in keeping with the engineering focus of the School in which the Team resides and offer the opportunity to interact with real-world rural and sometimes remote communities (fostering strong public engagement and digital inclusion).  The Team uses a variety of novel technologies to support its heritage site surveys, from small Unmanned Air Vehicles and a mini submarine, to image processing software capable of converting images captured from aerial video into geo-referenced 2D mosaics and 3D, fully textured scenes.