Tanks For The Memories: How Augmented Reality is Bringing an Iconic German Tank Back to Life

By James O Malley on at

In 1944, the war was not going well for Hitler. Defeated at Stalingrad and Normandy, the Soviet Union was advancing in the east, and the Allies were making their way west. It was at this point that the Nazis unleashed a deadly new weapon: the Sturmmörserwagen 606/4 mit 38 cm RW 61 - a beastly new tank that became known simply as the Sturmtiger.

Based on the Tiger I, and sporting a 380mm rocket-propelling cannon, only 19 were ever made, but they saw action on both fronts: in the Battle of the Bulge (Germany’s last major offensive), and defensively in the Battle of the Reichswald, and during the Warsaw Uprising.

These days, only two complete vehicles remain, and are held by museums in Russia and Germany. This was particularly annoying for The Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset. This year’s big new exhibition is a display of its Tiger collection. It has everything… except a Sturmtiger. So what to do? With a little help from Wargaming, the company behind the wildly popular World of Tanks, the museum has used some cutting edge mixed reality technology to display the Sturmtiger in its rightful place in the exhibition.

A real Sturtiger in the Kubinka Museum, Russia.

Today visitors to the museum can stroll through a line-up of some of the most formidable tanks that Britain has ever faced in battle - including the Tiger 131, the tank that Brad Pitt commanded in the film Fury. At the end of the row there is a gap - but using the power of Hololens and Google’s Project Tango, mixed reality has been able to complete the set.

Because the Sturmtiger is virtual, this enables it to do much more than the other static tanks. As the visitor stands forth, the the tank will drive into view, fire its enormous cannon - and will also open up, so they can see the mechanism inside that is making it all work.

I actually got to experience this first hand - sadly not at the Tank Museum but in Giz’s London office. And let me tell you - an enormous tank suddenly appearing by the water cooler really does help you appreciate the sense of scale.

An Old Castle in Belarus

Matt Daly, special projects lead at Wargaming explained how the collaboration came about:

“[The Tank Museum] put together this Tiger collection, which is a long-term exhibition that they built some bespoke space for, and they’ve gathered together five – four other tanks beside the Tiger 131 and they wanted to bring in the sixth tank, they had a space for it and everything [...] But logistically it just turned out to be impossible for them to get it. They were going to basically redistribute the tanks so that would turn into a five tank collection and just not bring the Sturmtiger over, so we thought that was a perfect fit for this.”

This coincided with Matt and his team playing with mixed reality, and wanting to find a fun excuse to make use of it.

“So last year at some point we were crowded around, my small team and I we were huddled around this table in this old castle in Belarus in the middle of nowhere, [in] the dead of winter, and I had brought a Tango device and a HoloLens,” he explains.

“Because we’d been playing around with them and we try to get early access to the newest toys just to try them out and start brainstorming. We were immediately impressed with the device’s unaided tracking, just the menu systems even on the HoloLens for instance just opening up the Windows menus and leaving the windowpanes in place as you walk around them and stuff, just that on its own had impressed us previously.”

“It feels like the future”, he says, likening the technology to Minority Report and Ghost in the Shell. “It feels real when you put the headset on or you pick up the tablet in a way that the previous ones couldn’t.”

And the Tank Museum was the perfect partner for it.

Getting Tanked in the Pub

When it came to creating the VR tank, the team had a leg up: They were able to take the 3D model from the World of Tanks game as a starting point, before applying some upgrades. “We have a pretty extensive historical research team in-house and so we worked with them to basically pull up plans, schematics, reference imagery so that we can build out the interior of the vehicle,” Matt explains.

The team wanted to build the model so that it could conceivably be deployed anywhere - not just in the Tank Museum. And when it came to testing, they found one of the best place to put the model through its paces was… the pub. “It’s been an astounding number of technical tests that we’ve don in British pubs with local patrons sort of giving us the weird glances.”

The reason wasn’t simply that pubs are fun places to be (though I’m sure that helps). “It’s a good test because its low light levels and the repeating carpet pattern that you find in a lot of English pubs is actually a good sort of stress test for the tracking on the device because it does not deal well with repeating stuff basically”, he says, referring to how the camera on the Hololens and Google Tango use visual information for positioning, so that repeating patterns risk confusing them. “It thrives in non-uniformity but once we parked the Sturmtiger in the local pub in Wareham or Poole or wherever we were, in this sort of dimly lit pub with that carpet I’m talking about and it stayed in place it was another reaffirmation that it was working well.”

So there you go - if you want to become a mixed reality master, it's time to head down to your local and get to work.

The Tank Museum’s exhibition is now open, and the war, as ever, continues to be fought in World of Tanks.