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BBC Earth goes into the deep

A curious sea otter in a Californian kelp forest A curious sea otter in a Californian kelp forest BBC Studios/Preloaded
05 May
A new virtual reality experience, ‘BBC Earth: Life in VR’, takes us on an interactive and educational journey into the ocean depths

Everything had been going so well. I’d dived into the gently lapping waters off the Californian coast, following a sea otter down through gigantic kelp forests, collecting tasty sea urchins as she went. Heading ever deeper, I’d latched onto a migrating school of hungry Humboldt squid, being sure to dart out the way of opportunistic prowling blue sharks. Suddenly, the continental shelf ran out. Before I knew it, I had been flung head-first into the open ocean.

Out of the darkness, a giant loomed. As I hung there, suspended in the murky water, thin shafts of light disappearing into the nothingness below, the enormous eye of a sperm whale surveyed me nervously. Eventually losing interest, it turned and began an epic dive straight down in search of giant squid. Instinctively, I took a breath. I knew I was also heading into the inky black below.

squidHumboldt squid in search of food (Image: BBC Studios/Preloaded)

Such an experience – diving deep into this rich world of sea creatures – would normally be a complete impossibility. But thanks to the new BBC Earth: Life in VR virtual reality game, it’s now available to all. The experience – created by BAFTA award-winning studio Preloaded – enables participants to move from the passive role of a BBC Earth viewer, into an active role where animals and plants behave in a realistic way, responding to the presence of an unusual visitor in their environment (more immature participants might enjoy being able to chase irritated fish with their cursor).

Life in VR has been specially designed for the new Lenovo Mirage Solo and Daydream headset (but is also available to download on Google Play for mobile devices). The key selling point for these new headsets is that they do away with the cumbersome wires that anchored prior VR experiences to bulky static hardware units. As such, users can experience the virtual environments without worrying about getting tangled or tripping over wires.

As you move through the game – in this particular case heading deeper and deeper into the Pacific Ocean – there are multiple opportunities not only to embrace the three-dimensional world surrounding you, but also to move in all directions and explore the space you inhabit. This can include everything from invading the territory of a particularly defensive Garibaldi fish, to a mind-warping dive into the world of microscopic zooplankton.

At every stage, a friendly voice in your ear informs you about the diverse and sometimes bizarre creatures you’re seeing, describing the unique characteristics of the specific environment into which you’ve wandered.

whaleParticipants get to take a dive with a sperm whale on the hunt for giant squid (Image: BBC Studios/Preloaded)

As the creators of the game explain, accuracy was a crucial component. ‘We unpicked an entire whale skeleton because we needed to move a blowhole slightly to the left,’ recalls Tom Burton from BBC Studios. ‘We had to spend quite a lot of time working out the time of day that it would be for these creatures to behave... working closely with researchers and cameramen who’ve been in the field to make sure we understand exactly how these animals behave, what they look like, and how they move.’

Jon Caplin from Preloaded adds that the years and years of BBC Natural History department films were utilised to create a genuine portrayal of this environment. ‘We had gigabytes of film footage supplied,’ he explains, ‘so we could watch sea otters swimming and how Humboldt squid dart around. We kept checking, making sure that it’s factually accurate.’

This particular experience is potentially a template for many more iconic BBC Earth natural history environments to make the jump into virtual reality. For example, when the next major BBC TV series comes around – be it another Planet Earth, or Blue Planet, or someting else entirely – it may be possible to accompany it with the opportunity for viewers to then experience the environments from the show themselves, putting on the headset and virtually stepping into the remote locations so powerfully captured on film. ‘There are lots of ecosystems and lots of animals for us to choose from,’ says Burton. ‘There are so many more stories to be told.’

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