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Canmore’s coal mines come back to life with virtual reality

“But I also like to think that once the mines closed down, the town persisted because of the quality of the people.”
MG28 Inside the Mine VR
Ed Latvala, right, a former Canmore coal miner, tries out the new virtual reality exhibition, Inside the Mines, as creator and animator Jerry Auld observes his experience. Photo Credit: Glen Crawford

CANMORE – It may be 40 years since miners dug into the earth for coal in Canmore, but residents and visitors to the community will soon be able to experience what it was like thanks to a new virtual reality exhibit Inside the Mine at the Canmore Museum and Geoscience Centre (CMAGS).  

Canmore’s history has a long and rich past in coal mining. Back in 1889, the town opened its first coal mine, which continued to provide income and jobs throughout the community until 1979 when the coal mines closed for good. 

“The reality is, if it wasn’t for the railway and for the mines, Canmore as we know it today, we would not exist,” said museum executive director Jason Gariepy. “It may have existed later on, but it was those families that had the mining history and perspective that really helped build out the community.”

Since the closure of Canmore’s last mine, the town has evolved into what it is today. The museum was recently awarded a tourism innovation grant from the Alberta Government that allowed the organization to pursue the virtual reality project, bringing the 1930s Canmore Mining experience to life.

“Although I believe virtual reality has occurred in the Bow Valley in the past, this will be a permanent feature at the museum,” Gariepy said. “As people come into explore Canmore’s history they’ll see a lot of the mining past. But when they put on the headset they’ll actually get the look and the sounds of Canmore mines.”

Local animator, Jerry Auld, wanted to recreate a realistic depiction of a miner’s life underground. Auld utilized history books and old mine diagrams to recreate the mines in virtual reality, but the key to the program’s authenticity was the knowledge from the miner’s themselves.

“There’s just no substitute for expertise and for being there. So those miner’s are invaluable resources for me trying to be able to recreate this,” Auld said

As retired miners navigated through Auld’s virtual reality model, it was like they were back in the mines. While they hadn’t been in a mine for nearly 40 years, they were still able to fine-tune the details of the virtual reality model and correct inaccuracies to create an authentic experience.

“I thought that was really interesting that after all these years, they still have that visceral reaction, like a survival reaction to go in and just be totally aware. They are not just walking through just as a participant, they’re really actively in that mine,” Auld added.

With Inside the Mine VR, Auld was able to leverage its immersion quality by focusing not only on what people saw, but also what they heard. According to Garipey, early on in the development stages, Auld noticed that sometimes visuals are not always the most compelling element – it’s the ambient sounds and noises.

“We worked really, really hard with the miners to make sure whether it’s the sound of the timbers cracking, if it’s the sound of water, or if it’s the sound of heavy equipment that it’s as real as possible,” Gariepy said.

“As you’re working your way through the experience, you really feel like you’re really deep inside [the mines].”

Since the closure of the last mine in 1979, Canmore has evolved into a new community. However, the history of the mines, the miners and their families are something that both Gariepy and Auld think should be honoured.

“Canmore survived because of the mines, because of the quality of the coal and because of the extent of the coal,” Auld said.

“But I also like to think that once the mines closed down, the town persisted because of the quality of the people.”

The Canmore Museum and Geoscience Centre will be launching the permanent exhibit Inside the Mine: A Virtual Reality Experience in time for Miner’s Day (July 13).