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How BBC Earth: Life In VR Brings Nature Documentaries To Virtual Reality

Ocean daydream.

There’s nobody that makes nature documentaries quite like the BBC. Planet Earth and Blue Planet are some of the best attempts at capturing the wonders of the natural world and bringing the diversity of our planet to us, and with BBC Earth: Life in VR, they’re trying to bring us even closer.

Life in VR is free and available now for Google Daydream platforms.

This isn’t the first time that the Beeb have experimented with VR, but it’s perhaps their most direct, interactive and game-like. There’s an interesting blend here between the storytelling and exploration, of leading you along a set path, tying yourself to follow the animal that’s the focal point of a given moment and letting you cut free and instead move from point to point independently, finding occasional bonus discoveries. It’s still fairly linear, but you can go along for the ride, or make your own way.

Tom Burton, Head of Interactive at BBC Studio explained, “[It’s about reaching a] mass audience and keeping a relatively light touch. We have to recognise that while producers and creators are having to work out what works and what doesn’t work, it’s also about being cognisant that the audience is figuring out what they like and what they don’t like. That was a driving force and it was actually a lot of work to keep things simple, looking for those opportunities to impart clever thinking.[…]

“There’s a lot of terrible terms that get thrown around, but I think what we’re trying to do is create a story experience rather than a gaming experience, but there’s a lot of game design in there in order for that to have happened. What we’re looking for someone to be immersed in, aside from the world, is the story, and I think there’s a tipping point where if you start to put too much interaction and too much emphasis on understanding and learning those aspects of it, it stops that half of your brain from letting itself get lost in the imagination.”

The Lenovo Mirage Solo headset, which is out now in the US and coming out soon in the UK and other parts of the world, is the latest evolution of VR tech for Google’s Daydream platform. The main interaction comes through the Daydream remote that acts as a pointer to click and interact, but the new WorldSense tech uses two cameras on the front of the Mirage Solo to track the environment around you and use that to let you move more freely around your virtual environment, letting the game more accurately know your position. One key moment in Life in VR makes use of this, as a boisterous Garibaldi fish spots you and faces up to you. It knows exactly where you are, looking straight at you even when you move around, which would be lost with older Daydream headsets and smartphone VR.

“The Garibaldi fish is really interesting,”  Tom said, “because if you put it on with the 6 degrees of freedom, and you suddenly realise that fish really knows where you are, whereas if it’s just three degrees of freedom, it kind of knows where you are, and still eyeballs you, but not on the same level.”

There’s a really pleasant cel shaded style to the game, somewhat reminiscent of the cartoon-like work in Telltale Games’ adventures. Obviously playing with photo realism would’ve been too much for the level of hardware in the Lenovo, but the high resolution screen (2560×1440) and the almost cel shaded art style manage to be more than evocative enough in tandem with the narrator.

Developer Preloaded’s Head of Art, Jon Caplin said, “It is down to the platform and it is angular in its form, but it’s also quite solid. We wanted something that was quite tactile and “there”, and though we are in a VR experience, it’s just to heighten it up a bit more. We weren’t going to create something to look photo realistic, and certainly not on a mobile platform, but it’s got a lot of character and colour.

“There’s a storytelling that’s happening through the colour and the shift of tone. When we were doing our storyboards, if you stood back you could see this very clear transition of greens and blues going down into dark depths and coming back up again to the sunlight and the final piece at the end.”

It’s pleasantly immersive – or sub-mersive, if you will – as you start off on the coast of California, a sea otter cradling her young before you follow another of her species down below the surface and head down to their hunting grounds in the kelp forests where they eagerly grab sea urchins.

What Life in VR can really do, however, is show you things that the documentaries never could without themselves descending into CGI and visual trickery. Putting you right in the middle of a swarm of krill would be nigh on impossible, let alone doing so as squid dive through the rapidly shifting ball of tiny creatures, feeding on the swarm.

Tom said, “We’re looking for those moments, actually speaking to the cameramen and asking, “Where’s the shot you’d really like to have?” They were like, “If I could put my head inside a krill ball?” Because they can’t do that, they’d just be chasing the krill ball around the ocean, but we can. ”

Even further than that, it can take us down into the very darkest depths of the oceans where barely anything can survive, where there’s practically no light, and where creatures that humans have never seen reside. Visualising the clicks of sonar here is especially evocative, as we get to see the best guesses of what lives down in these depths.

Perhaps my only complaint about Life in VR is its brevity, though that complaint dissolves as soon as you realise it’s free. It comes in at around 30 minutes to travel through its four connected chapters while finding some of the six additional ones, but there’s enough incentive to maybe dive back in and find the others. Really, it works as an additional experience, a way for the BBC to get people to engage in a new and slightly different way with the nature documentaries that they create, and given the ease of phone-based Daydream headsets and the lack of additional computer or console requirement, it puts the experience much closer to hand for more people.

Jill Kellie, BBC Earth Commercial Director of BBC Earth, said, “Part of the ethos of BBC Earth is to innovate and try to bring new audiences in. There’s a huge audience out there watching natural history television in a normal fashion, but if we can get other audiences coming in from a VR point of view and suddenly realising there’s another world out there, then all the better.”

It’s a charming taste of what VR can offer to broaden the horizons of the BBC’s entertainment, and I’m eager to see where they take us next.

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