Adam Blumenthal has always loved history.
And technology, especially virtual reality.
But he didn’t quite know how to bridge the two together until he moved to Rhode Island and dove into the history of the burning of the Gaspee.
“I’ve moved a lot, and lived in some interesting places,” he said in a recent interview. “Wherever I move, I liked to dive into the history of that location and imagine what it was like centuries ago. Rhode Island is rich for that exploration.”
Blumenthal says he first got into virtual reality back when he was a student at Ithaca College studying film and video in the early 1990s. Blumenthal explained that at the time, virtual reality (VR) wasn’t like we know it today.
“It had just emerged out of NASA and the military, and was just starting to become more widespread,” he said. “It’s taken about 30 years to be ready for prime time.”
In the early 1990s, when Blumenthal first began working with VR, it required massive super computers that every day people didn’t have access to. He explained that it took a while for personal computers to “level up” to VR.
While he was in college, VR moved to the back burner as he worked with other forms of interactive media.
“At the beginning of my career it was CD ROMs, and then it became websites, and then mobile apps and now social media,” he said. “My work has always been working with big brands and organizations to help them use digital media to create new ways of engaging with their audiences.”
Looking into local history
In 2015, Blumenthal moved to Rhode Island from Ashville, North Carolina, settling in the Edgewood neighborhood of Cranston.
“I got the experience, again, of exploring the history of my neighborhood,” he said, as he described encountering markers that tell the story of the Gaspee.
This was also around the time the state was going through a tourism re-branding with the controversial “Cooler/Warmer” project.
“I remember thinking that the Gaspee story would be worth my time,” said Blumenthal, who had just started at Brown University as the VR artist in residence for the Center for Computation and Visualization and the Granoff Center for the Arts, and was looking for a project to take on.
Blumenthal started his research by reading books and studying chapters of the events.
“I discovered that it was a really good and really important story with significance in igniting the colonies’ rebellion,” he said. “I feel like it’s not well known, and a lot of us who are Gaspee-heads, think it deserves to be more well-known.”
Blumenthal said he was inspired to combine the “shiny wow factor” of VR with the Gaspee events in order to get some more recognition of the important history.
Instrumental in his research was Warwick historian Henry Brown. Blumenthal said the two became fast friends, as Brown lent him book and artifacts from his own collection.
Blumenthal was also able to get his hands on some other artifacts, including letters from the Gaspee’s captain, Lt. William Dudingston, and Admiral John Montagu, thanks to the Providence and Newport historical societies.
“They were very kind to give me a couple boxes of artifacts to go through,” he said, describing the surreal feeling of “holding and reading the letters of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Captain of the Gaspee.”
As Blumenthal described it, the morning after the attack, crewmates and sailors were brought to shore at Stillhouse Cove.
Blumenthal explained that through the letters, he was able to find new sympathy for Dudingston.
“I read a copy of the letter sent to Montagu in his injured state,” he said. “Dudingston had always been the villain, but I had sympathy for him. He was injured and hurting. He has a very flowery, very stampy signature and it has an iconic design, but in the letter his handwriting is very slanted and shaky. You can really tell what he was going through.”
Blumenthal was also able to recreate exactly what the night sky looked like on that fateful night. Using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Climate Data Center, Blumenthal found weather records of Newport, Rhode Island for June 9-10, 1772.
Bringing technology, art together
In 2017, Blumenthal began filming the Gaspee scenes in VR.
To recreate the scenes, Blumenthal worked with the Providence and Newport historical societies to find authentic locations to film at, like the Colony House in Newport, the exact location where King George’s Commission of Inquiry was held to find and arrest the Gaspee perpetrators. Historical actors dressed in colonial garb recreated scenes, while Blumenthal handled the technology.
For virtual reality, Blumenthal used a large camera roughly the size of a Frisbee with 16 lenses to capture action in 360 degrees.
Blumenthal explains that at the time, it was a “first of its kind camera,” but the “huge and heavy” technology has evolved quickly and since been replaced with VR cameras now the size of golf balls.
Along with Brown University VR students, Blumenthal created a 3D replica of the Gaspee as it sails the New England waters. Blumenthal, who now works for a London-based digital media company, described a trip to London in which he learned the events of the Gaspee are told slightly differently across the pond.
“In their version, the captain was court marshaled,” said Blumenthal “And there are many different versions of the story. We don’t know if the Gaspee fell into a trap or if it really was a dumb accident.”
There are some other discrepancies. For example, in the British version, the crew was “at the ready to defend the ship” when in the Rhode Island story, “they were all sleeping,” explained Blumenthal.
Blumenthal’s unique work was recently granted an extension, and he was able to continue working on the film to optimize the VR experience for mobile apps, so that anyone with a smartphone will be able to participate in the historical event by downloading the free app, Burning the Gaspee VR, from the Apple or Android app stores.
In order to get the full VR experience, users will require a Google VR headset, which looks like a small cardboard box with two lenses, and costs $5.
Arizona State University recently purchased licensing to use Blumenthal’s Gaspee VR in their history courses to teach students about using interactive media in the classroom.
“That’s the most powerful thing about VR,” he said. “You can be immersed in an environment that enables an experiential form of learning. Not just being there, but also presenting the context of that topic.”
Blumenthal wants to use this opportunity to highlight artifacts of the events to students.
“There’s a lot more of the story to tell. The great part is how we filmed it,” said Blumenthal. “The camera is in the middle, so the student can look around and be the center of the action.”
June 2022 will be the 250th anniversary of the burning of the Gaspee, and Blumenthal has some “big things” in the works.
Starting with his handcrafted Gaspee hat, made by his artist wife Juditta Musette, Blumenthal is thinking of incorporating dry ice and flames.
“I hope to find ways to keep going with the Gaspee,” he said. Blumenthal is also working with the Rhode Island 250 Commission, and hopes to “help the country kick off our 250th birthday with this event.”
One of Blumenthal’s current projects is working with a company called Jigsaw to find answers to society’s biggest problems, like the unnecessary use of force by police officers. He is currently working on a VR program to train officers in de-escalation.
Working with Southern New Hampshire University, Blumenthal is creating virtual reality programs for studying neuroscience.
“SNHU has a huge online presence, with 130,000 online students, they’re very digitally savvy,” said Blumenthal, who hopes that this project will help him and other technology artists understand the impact of VR on student learning outcomes.
As for the future of VR? Blumenthal is feeling pretty positive.
“VR is on its path to ubiquity,” he said. “We’re going to see a lot more of it. Companies and clients are no longer asking why we should do VR, but how should we do it.”
The website (https://www.gaspeevr.com/) gives users a brief history of the event, a behind the scenes look at the making of the project, and more information on downloading the app.