Is VR the Future of News?
Marvin is the BBC’s newest foreign correspondent, and you can get inside his head.
This week the BBC released a new two-part virtual reality news documentary series called Damming the Nile, which was produced in partnership between BBC News and the newly launched BBC VR Hub headed up by Zillah Watson.
“Viewers will have enjoyed 360 news pieces from the BBC before, but never like this. The film is in full immersive VR, is stereoscopic and features fully spatialised audio. Audiences can enjoy the sheer scale and beauty of the Nile, alongside the major infrastructure projects that have shaped its past and will continue to shape its future,” Watson explains.
This is an interesting case study for VR content because it’s a crossover of several genres, bridging news reporting, documentary filmmaking, historical narrative and adventure. Even while you’re taking in the beautiful sights and sounds as you fly above waterfalls, you’re made aware that this is where the world’s first war over water could be fought as a major new project — the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam — threatens to upset the balance of power between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.
“We want to create high quality mobile VR pieces that give audiences experiences they can’t find anywhere else,” says Watson. “Damming the Nile VR does this by making you feel like you’re there, unearthing the story as you go, and getting a better understanding of the different cultures and points of view at play.”
Your guide through this complex experience is BBC Africa Correspondent Alastair Leithead. You join him and his crew as he interviews ministers and hear the perspective of locals in the street corners of Sudan and cafés of Khartoum. Viewers are able to explore the controversial dam up-close and fly in a hot air balloon to see the ancient pyramids and Egyptian temples, before finally landing back in the bustling chaos of the Cairo streets.
“As a foreign correspondent, my job is to introduce people to new and fascinating places, challenge stereotypes and explain how countries are growing and changing. Virtual reality means films like Damming the Nile VR can actually take our audiences there,” says Alastair Leithead, who in a BBC Radio 4 programme recounted how, the first time he ever tried VR, he thought to himself that “here might be the future of news. Why tell people about something when they can see and experience them for themselves?”
So when the chance came for him to film his Nile assignment in VR, he was enthusiastic about exploring the possibilities of the medium, and fascinated by the power of “Marvin” — the nickname the crew gave the 360 camera rig that captured the footage for this experience — to capture the essence of the moment in much the same way as a person would. This even went so far as ensuring that Marvin had his own seat cafés as they chatted with the locals.
“It’s a little bit weird being Marvin, being inside his head, and even weirder with me in there, whispering about what you should be looking at,” Leithead muses, yet given the fact that he’s exploring the possibility of whether his role might become redundant, he’s very positive about the technology, and seemingly willing to welcome Marvin as a worthy colleague rather than a threat.
“Technologies come and go, but there’s something about this that does exactly what a foreign correspondent should do: Takes you to a place, helps you understand it, and shows you why you should care. Maybe the future lies with Marvin, our own Virtual Correspondent.”
Both parts of Damming the Nile can be viewed on YouTube with or without a VR headset like a Google Cardboard. As well as accessing it on the BBC VR app or the Oculus Gear VR store, viewers can also watch the documentary on the BBC’s brand new site dedicated to VR content, which also showcases previous immersive productions from the corporation such as the award-winning The Turning Forest and Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel. You can also see Himalayas: A Trek to School and Home: A VR Spacewalk before riding a supersonic car as it attempts to break the world land speed record in Bloodhound. A special 360° version of the films will be available to view to watch through the BBC News website and on Facebook. The story will aired as a news documentary on BBC TV channels, and will be available to read on the BBC News website.
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Alice Bonasio is a VR Consultant and Tech Trends’ Editor in Chief. She also regularly writes for Fast Company, Ars Technica, Quartz, Wired and others. Connect with her on LinkedIn and follow @alicebonasio on Twitter.
Originally published at Tech Trends.