The virtual reality of war Exhibit uses VR technology and photography to explore the conflict in Ukraine

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Standing amidst the rubble in Kyiv, looking around at piles of exposed rebar is heartbreaking. In every direction, buildings and lives have been destroyed, but the Ukrainian people are resilient. 

“They are so strong — they come back and think about next year, already rebuilding. It’s inspiring,” said Ukrainian student Kateryna Padalko. 

On Jan. 17, over 50 people gathered at the Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA) to view a photography exhibit created by Ukrainian students at UW.

The students are at UW finishing their degrees after fleeing their country due to the current war. They are among the eight-million Ukrainians that have been displaced since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. 

The exhibit was created to remind UW students and the surrounding community of the ongoing war, since there has been a decrease in news coverage. 

“We organize this exhibition to bring awareness to UW people about the war in Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in war. During [the last] 11 months, Russia is terrorizing Ukrainian people using a different arsenal of horror from shutting electricity and heat to raping kids and killing hundreds of people by one rocket hit,” explained Halyna Padalko, a Ukrainian student doing her masters in Global Governance at BSIA. She is also one of the lead organizers of the exhibit.  

“We wanted to tell about courage and our struggle for freedom and democracy by showing pictures from [the] everyday life of Ukrainian people. We showed our bombed universities and people who have lost their home[s], but not their hope. We wanted to show how we believe in our victory, [why] it is important for us and encourage you to believe in us and continue to support Ukraine.”

The exhibit has been travelling around the UW campus hosted by various faculties. A virtual reality (VR) headset was recently added to the exhibit to immerse viewers in the destruction of war. 

The VR tour was developed by creators in Ukraine using drone footage taken before and during the war. The UW Games Institute provided the VR headset technology.  

The VR exhibit shows various locations including Kyiv, Odesa, and the Mriya aircraft. All locations have seen heavy bombing and attacks. The images moved several viewers to tears. 

“VR is a powerful tool. You connect with it on an emotional level and have a physical reaction,” said Susan Roy, associate professor at UW’s history department. 

“It was the first time I had done VR. It was really empowering to see how beautiful Ukraine was before the destruction and then really unsettling to see the degree of destruction. I hadn’t seen images like that before.” 

Along with the VR tour, the exhibit is made up of five photo boards. One is focused on education — universities that have been hit by multiple missiles. There are students in their prom outfits, standing among the crumbling buildings, and professors teach virtual classes from the frontline. A virtual map was also created to track the status of schools — from kindergarten to universities. 

Ukrainian culture is also threatened by the war. Artifacts and paintings have been stolen from museums, and heritage sites are being targeted. Underground concerts in metro stations, which are being used as shelters, protect and promote culture while raising morale. 

Along with the photo exhibit and VR experience, there are Ukrainian treats and drinks to enjoy. 

The Ukrainian photo exhibit is on display at BSIA until Jan. 23. After that, it will be at the health and arts faculties. To learn more about the campaign or donate to the war effort, visit the University for Ukraine website.