City takes transportation ‘virtually’ to the next level

(Top) Mayor Robbie Robinson and his grandson, Gates Griffin, walk along the extensive model train display that is the centerpiece of the museum.
Steve Rogers
Staff Writer

From movies as diverse as “Fantastic Voyage” and “The Martian,” West Point’s Sam Wilhite Transportation Museum soon will give new meaning to travel.

Inspired by the latest training tool at Columbus Air Force Base, the museum is adding virtual reality experiences ranging from a trip through the human body to driving a train to exploring space.

“We’re just trying to stay on top of technology while at the same time providing an educational experience. This helps do both, from the toy train experience and all it offers to these new experiences,” noted West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson, admitting that ‘virtual reality’ is beyond his expertise.

“But you can see why it is such an attraction, such an experience,” he said Wednesday after donning the virtual reality goggles and taking a spin through a railroad yard and onto a train engine.

“That’s pretty cool,” added Robinson’s 6-year-old grandson, Gates Griffin, after spending a few minutes under the headset.

The West Point Community Foundation provided the more than $5,000 in funding for the virtual reality set up that includes a large screen, computer software and a six-foot-by-eight-foot ‘stage.’ Visitors wear a special headset and manage their experience with handsets.

The virtual reality participations include an expansive train ride with Derail Valley, being an astronaut in Mission ISS, a journey through the human body in Shareware, and other experiences with Google Earth VR, Travel, Bear Island and Jigsaw.

Former Mayor Kenny Dill suggested the idea after reading about the use of the technology in training pilots at Columbus Air Force Base. It has become an early gauge of how well trainees will do as actual pilots and sped up the training process for future airmen.

“The idea was that if it worked for the air base, certainly there had to be some things we could do at the museum,” explained Randy Jones, a decorated Army helicopter pilot who is West Point city administrator.

“The idea is to increase the number of visitors to the museum, to expand its attractions and at the same time, its exposure,” Robinson added.

“I had some nurses use the human body experience and they raved about it,” said Terry Craig, who is the museum’s curator.

“I want to get some gamers in here, people who do the virtual reality thing all the time, to learn more and to get them to help promote it. There are so many things we can do with this,” Craig added.

“It’s a transportation museum so the things we’ve got in the virtual reality are transportation related. But transportation is so many things,” he continued.

The museum, located along the railroad tracks in the city’s old train depot just off downtown, includes the state’s largest scale model train and a replica train ticket office. It also has displays, pictures and information about all modes of transportation, from steamboats to planes.

It’s open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

“I can see this bringing a whole new group of people here. I think they’ll be surprised at what they find,” Robinson noted.