There’s a moment in Back to the Future where Doc Brown explains to Marty McFly that the DeLorean time machine can take them anywhere, anytime, including the ability to “witness the birth of Christ.” That line of dialogue always stayed with me. What would it be like to stand and see the life of Jesus, the places He taught, and the miracles He performed? Some movies have done a decent job recreating it, but nothing actually makes you feel like you’re there. Until now.
Immersive Bible Experience combines the talents of Jarom Sidwell (a Hollywood visual effects artist who worked on The Avengers, Avatar, The Hobbit, and Transformers) with the knowledge of archeologists, the detailed insights of historians, and the testimony of theologians to recreate biblical sites in virtual reality. I had the opportunity to take it for a test drive at the LDS Film Festival a few weeks ago, and it’s the next best thing to hopping in the DeLorean and visiting ancient Jerusalem yourself.
The attention to detail, from the architecture to the clothing to the layout of the city, is stunning. You can walk, run, pick things up, throw or carry objects, interact with temple patrons and priests, and interact with your environment through the combined use of a headset and handheld controllers. You can look up, down, and all around in immersive 3D. You can stop and learn about ancient temple rites and other historical details. The city of ancient Jerusalem surrounds you, with accurate sound design and depth of field.
My favorite feature: you can fly. Granted, that part’s not historically accurate, but it is a rush to see the city from the air and soar, Superman-style, to your next destination if you don’t want to walk there. It’s a blast and it made me giggle out of pure joy. I wanted to stay inside the virtual world for hours. Imagine if the worlds of Ready Player One existed, except they promoted faith in Jesus Christ.
I fired some questions to Jarom, along with Charan Prabhakar, the “voice in your head” i.e. your host as you roam biblical Jerusalem. They’ve got big plans, and I was glad to hear about them:
Jonathan Decker: Where did the idea to recreate the Bible in Virtual Reality come from? Where did this all start?
Jarom Sidwell: The idea for The Immersive Bible Experience came to me during a lecture from biblical scholar. I was absolutely riveted, but when I looked around the room, a lot of people were zoning out, not paying attention. The Bible scholar was using pictures and a powerpoint, but to no avail. I thought to myself, these people are missing out on some fascinating information! Then it hit me, I have the ability to create virtual worlds in 3D. I did it for blockbuster films like Avatar, The Avengers, and The Hobbit—I realized I could do the same for the Biblical world as well!
Here at Immersive, we are striving to digitally immerse people in ancient worlds of the past, making the Bible stories and teachings of Jesus come to life around you like never before. Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and in-depth mobile apps are how we are accomplishing that.
JD: Tell me about the research that went into this.
Charan Prabhakar: Historical accuracy was extremely important. We spend quite a bit of time collaborating with archaeologists, scholars, rabbis, and other faith leaders to ensure this experience feels as authentic as possible. These incredible people have spent years and even decades of their lives in the Holy Land and have access to areas and research most people don’t. It is amazing to learn from each of them. We then take their notes, compare and overlay their diagrams and drawings and convert those into the 3D models that became the foundation for our virtual worlds.
JD: What are your hopes for this? Is it for churches? Schools? Homes?
JS: Our dream is to share the Immersive Bible Experience with millions of individuals, families, and organizations worldwide to increase their education, knowledge, and understanding of the Bible and its teachings. The full Virtual Reality experience is perfect for museums, large churches, universities, seminaries, and schools. It will allow leaders and teachers to make learning incredibly interactive. Our suite of in-depth mobile apps are perfect for individuals, kids, families, small groups, and large groups when connected to a TV or projector. Youth love this—they spend hours walking around and exploring!
JD: How affordable will it be?
CP: Our ultimate goal is that every individual who wants to take their Bible study to the next level can access some aspect of The Immersive Bible Experience. The price will range anywhere from $10-$30 for the mobile apps, which include Mobile 3D, Augmented Reality, and Mobile Virtual Reality. Each of these have their own flavor and way to interact with the Bible, so no matter your age or level of knowledge, there is something for you.
JD: Tell us about the team that created it. Who was responsible for what? What are your backgrounds?
JS: From the technical end, we’ve assembled an amazing, award-winning team of game designers, Hollywood VFX artists, and programmers all with the same goal in mind - to create immersive worlds for higher learning. Immersive has multiple game designers that have won awards at E3. They are responsible for designing and implementing the most engaging and educational experience possible. Our Visual Effects artists have worked on Avatar, The Avengers, Thor, and a ton of other blockbusters. This team models, textures, lights, renders and optimizes all the 3D assets that go into the game.
The 3D layout artists have to pay close attention to the designs and input from archeologists and scholars so the city feels and flows as it would have anciently. Finally, our development team puts all the pieces in place. They program and write the code that allows you to walk around, learn from the information points, and interact and complete tasks that people back then would have had to do. Without a unified team, this would be impossible. We love our team!
JD: Where are you going to be in the next few months so people can try this for themselves?
CP: We want everyone to try this for themselves! We are talking to a number of different organizations to install the Virtual Reality in bookstores, museums, visitor centers, and classrooms so as many people as possible can explore, play, and learn together in full Virtual Reality. We are doing a lot of web Augmented Reality so people can get a taste of the technology without downloading the app. Try that here!
JD: What has the response been so far from people who've tried it out?
JS: We have shared the Virtual Reality and Suite of Apps to thousands of people already - from Los Angeles to Washington DC, Florida, New York, and Texas - and they love it! A manager of a church in LA told us she, “learned more in ten minutes than she had in ten years.” That’s how powerful immersing people in our visual world can be. We love witnessing people’s reactions.
JD: Apart from just being a super cool, immersive experience, what are you wanting this to do for people spiritually?
CP: Faith is a unique journey and an individual, very personal experience. Our main goal was to create an engaging and immersive environment where individuals could feel God’s love and understand their relationship with deity. After experiencing the Immersive Bible VR, a senior faith leader applauded our efforts and urged us to keep expanding the content and learning. He said, "this medium (gaming) is what will help the next generation come to know their Savior.” If we help people learn and teach more about Jesus, we will feel like our efforts are worth it.
JD: Any plans to bring other Bible locations to life?
JS: Yes! Absolutely we want to expand the virtual Bible! Herod’s Temple and Jerusalem are just the beginning. We want to expand to Capernaum, Galilee, Bethlehem, and so on so eventually every story in the Bible is associated with a digital scene readers and believers can interact with and explore. If they are immersed in that world, they become one of the characters and learn and grow with the other characters in the experience.
JD: How can our readers experience this? What can we do to support it?
CP: We are really excited to share this with everyone! We’ve been self-funding this project for the last two years and are now wanting to fast track it to get it into people’s hands as quickly as possible. We’re also working with organizations to help get the in depth mobile apps and VR experience out to people. To learn more visit us at www.immersiveHistory.io.
My thanks to Jarom and Charan for their time and for their efforts to bring souls to the Savior through incredible technology. Trust me, you’ll want to experience this yourself.
Jonathan Decker is a family therapist and clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is an actor, author, comedian, and television personality known for his book 250 Great Movies for Latter-day Families, co-hosting The KJZZ Movie Show, and starring in CTU: Provo and BYU’s Divine Comedy