For more than 40 years, British television personality Sir David Attenborough has been producing some of the finest nature documentaries in the world.
I was delighted to hear Atlantic Productions was working on a 20-minute VR experience to accompany Attenborough’s BBC series on the Great Barrier Reef. This VR documentary is showing until the end January at the Natural History Museum in London. It will presumably be released more widely later in the year, but with no firm information yet announced I decided to get myself to London to check it out.
The film chronologically charts Attenborough’s dive to explore a section of the Great Barrier Reef in a three-person submersible. The footage was shot with three different 360-degree camera rigs – one carried by a scuba diver, a second mounted on the side of the submersible and a third in the cockpit, sitting alongside Attenborough. Cutting between these views provides a good degree of visual variety. One moment you might be watching Attenborough board the sub and react to what he sees, the next you might be drifting alongside the vehicle among a school of Barracuda.
It is still very much the early days of 360-degree video capture but nature footage is usually the most engrossing video content you’ll be able to find. The film aspires to be more than just a disconnected series of 360 shots, though, and Attenborough’s narration certainly lends some intellectual weight to the experience. The film does still rely on standard video, projected onto ‘virtual screens’, to deliver expert interviews and detailed photography of the coral. Disappointingly, this flat footage comprises at least a third of the overall run time.
It’s a technical achievement to have captured such crisp underwater footage in 360. My favorite shot features dozens of different fish and even a couple sharks who are attracted to bait left near one of the cameras. I could easily have sat there for hours. However, if you are expecting to see thrilling shots of predators hunting their prey, or intimate moments of parents caring for their young, you will be a bit disappointed. Most Attenborough documentaries take months of patience to capture such sequences, while the Great Barrier Reef VR film feels like its principle photography was shot in much less time.
Not all of the 360 footage works flawlessly. The capture technology used to film this is already looking a little dated and you may notice some stitch lines. The opening helicopter shots are probably the most ill-advised. On paper, I can see why they are in there – a big aerial shot is how practically all nature documentaries start – however, these moments caused a mild headache that stuck with me for hours. Given that so much of the film uses standard flat footage already, in hindsight it might have been wiser to handle these shots this way as well.
On the subject of headaches, it is interesting to note how the Natural History Museum handled the risk of nauseating their audience. Staff alluded to the risk of simulation sickness, although the words “sickness” or “nausea” were not used. They warned some people may feel “strange” from the moving camera and proposed that viewers should “try to accept that they are moving” as a means of combating that – suggesting the phenomenon is psychosomatic. I have heard, anecdotally, that telling users that VR may make them sick increases their chances of experiencing sim-sickness.
As a whole, the museum did a good job presenting this new technology to the public, managing to get around 50 people in at once. The Gear VR is clearly the appropriate device for this kind of thing – it is reasonably affordable and rugged, there is no need for positional tracking and the visuals are of a high enough quality to provide an experience worth paying for. Despite its many virtues, though, Gear VR is not without its drawbacks. The ability for an administrator to remotely press ‘play’ on multiple devices at once would be valuable in a public exhibition setting like this, something that isn’t standard with the Gear VR. Hard benches that limit your ability to turn around is hardly ideal for viewing 360 degree content too and, amusingly, the ushers had to urge the audience to keep their hands down during the film. The tendency to want to point at things in VR was initially causing people to accidentally smack one another in the face.
Ultimately, it is great to see a distinguished documentarian embracing VR. It is an ambitious project and I certainly didn’t feel like my entrance fee was wasted, but it has to be said that it is far from the perfect VR documentary because it still heavily relies on standard camera shots and its 360 video is visibly flawed in several places. Of course this is not unexpected. Both of these criticisms are symptoms of the limitations the camera technology used at the time of filming. Judging by CES 2016, the camera rigs used to film this documentary are already looking antiquated. We can look forward to the next wave of VR nature documentaries and hope they are made available directly to HMD owners in the future.
David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef Dive can be viewed at the Natural History Museum in London until the end of January 2016 (Adults: £6.50).
– Story contributed by Edmund Ward