As the virtual reality (VR) hype of last year has begun to slow down, criticism has come in thick and fast from tech analysts who view it as unformed and unexploited. Can this technology – which from gaming to porn is perceived as more hedonistic than productive – be used for the public good? VR may not be redesigning the future as artificial intelligence (AI) is. But as residents and visitors of this Irish city are discovering, it can provide new ways to experience the present and the past.

Waterford, Ireland
The tale goes that in 917, exactly 1100 years ago, the Viking warrior Reginald led an enormous fleet of longships into Waterford harbour. For decades Vikings had raided monasteries and settlements along the Irish coast, but this arrival was more permanent. Reginald conquered the city of Waterford then moved on to establish Viking power in Dublin before sailing to England to become “King of all the Foreigners of England and Ireland”.

Today, in the ruins of a 13th century Franciscan monastery, visitors walk through a dark entryway to an imposing oak door carved with an old Viking motif and into a wooden house that is the exact replica of one found during archaeological excavations of Waterford. Once inside, actors share the day-to-day travails of Viking life in Waterford and recite stories of Viking gods and heroes. Then, they offer visitors a special mask so they too can see the ancient ghosts and kings.

This special mask is an Oculus Rift headset. The VR technology carries you through the Age of Vikings. In one moment, the ghost of Reginald’s duels with the ghost of an Irish Christian monk, one of many who suffered at the Vikings hands but also recorded their history. In another, you travel over the sea surrounded by thick fog until Viking ships suddenly break through the grey – and dead bodies appear in the water.

King of the Vikings’ was funded not by Google but by Fáilte Ireland, Ireland’s Ancient East, and Waterford City and County Council. The designers behind the experience are Irish web design company Emagine, who have worked extensively on tourism projects in Ireland. The initiative was local, but it has reached across national borders – The Norwegian ambassador to Ireland, Else Berit Eikeland was at the launch this summer and spoke about the project creating new ties with cities in Norway – and it set an example for VR as a tool to teach history that relies on ancient traditions of storytelling and brand new immersive technology.

On a small scale, VR headsets like Oculus Rift are prohibitively expensive and unavoidably awkward. But in a stable group setting they work. Everyone looks ridiculous, the clunky-ness doesn’t really matter, and the set-up and the performance tech is fully managed. Costs for quality display can be covered by a steady stream of paying visitors (tickets to King of the Vikings are €7) and the cost of the Oculus Rift has been falling. Last month Facebook, who owns Oculus VR, announced that the Oculus Rift and the Touch will get a permanent $100 price cut, bringing the bundled price of the virtual reality system to $499. And a cheaper model is expected to debut next year.

There is real potential in applying VR to the present, it can provide practice and training in fields like medicine that comes very close to the real thing. With dropping prices this area can keep growing. But there is also potential in teaching the past, and reinvigorating traditional stories and the ways that young and old learn about, remember and engage with those stories. Backwards is not a direction technology companies are used to looking in, but applying VR to the past may just be one of the ways to do what so many tech giants appear to proclaim as part of their mission: to connect people to others and to other experiences, and expand the horizons and perspectives of people across the world.