Attenborough plays with VR in a plea to save the reef

I recently went with some colleagues to see David Attenborough’s Virtual Reality Great Barrier Reef experience at the Australian Museum. It was the first time I had ever experienced VR and I was interested to see how it would work from a storytelling perspective. Attenborough’s plan is to use VR to show how beautiful the reef is to remind us that it is on its way to extinction. After been herded into a cinema theatre (realising it doesn’t matter where you sit) a brief 2D film was screened outlining the technology and basic controls. Via a partnership with Samsung  (who provided the Gear VR Innovator headsets and Galaxy S6 smartphones) the visuals were impressive albeit occasionally blurry. The film went for 20 minutes of which around half was ‘VR’ or seemingly 360 degree visuals from three cameras (one on the exterior of the submarine, one from the interior and one with a diver accompanying the submarine). The rest was 2D or a collage of 2D visuals presented in panorama or split screen. I came away with three takeaways:

1. VR is a director’s nightmare

I have a book from a film making course that cites Battleship Potemkin as one of the seminal uses of montage (now just considered basic editing – a big thing in 1925). Basically it’s juxtaposing one image with another. The classic scene is a pram flying down a flight of steps edited to build great suspense.Battleship Potemkin pram on stairs With the exception of a few gimmicky single take flicks such as Russian Ark, generally, moving images rely on editing to tell a story.The editor together with the director is directing the eye of the viewer to tell a story. The problem with VR is that it passes the control of the story from the director to the user. All the director can then do is splice VR environments together, one after another, giving the user complete freedom to explore each one. While this sounds appealing it conflicts with the fundamental objective of telling a story via a curated sequence of shots.

2. Unique experience for each viewer and each viewing

As the user has so much freedom to explore the environment it results in each viewing been different depending on what the user is looking at. While there was occasional direction via a voice over (‘here comes the shark’) you can only see so much. I saw completely different things to my colleagues and yet we were all experiencing the same virtual reality. Things will be missed entirely meaning VR really needs repeat experiences to fully explore everything.

3. Anytime there are 2D shots you’re thinking why am I wearing googles?

Around half of the experience was 2D due to the fact that the footage Attenborough needed for his narrative simply wasn’t available in 360 degrees. It felt a little like watching 2D scenes in a 3D movie. It reiterates the fact that 2D storytelling isn’t going anywhere and the optimal use for VR is to explore an environment without any core objective to follow a story.



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