VR Gives New Life to an Interactive Documentary

How WebVR technology radically changed Bear71, an interactive flash documentary. by Angelo Paura and Max Resnik

The landing page of the project
“There aren’t a lot of ways for a grizzly bear to die.
At least, that’s the way it was in the wild.”

Bear 71 was already wildly innovative when it was originally released in 2011 by the National Film Board of Canada. Director Leanne Allison combed through thousands of photos taken by trail cams in Banff National Park to piece together the story of a grizzly bear and the evolution of her habitat. The original experience (available here) played like a top-down open world video game, inviting the user to explore the park, following the story of a grizzly bear (tagged #71 by park rangers) and the other inhabitants and visitors of the park.

Bear 71 VR trailer
“She was tracked and logged as data” — the original Bear 71 included a map, reminiscent of top-down video games

In March of 2017, the NFB released an update of Bear 71, as a VR experience. This new version highlights enhancements that new technology can bring to storytelling. It challenges filmmakers and journalists to consider how to reintroduce valuable work to new audiences.

“ Bear 71 was always imagined as a 3D environment, so when the opportunity arose to re-build it in WebVR technology, it was a natural fit.” — Loc Dao, NFB CTO and one of the producers on the original project.

Bear 71 invites viewers into a digital reproduction of the national park. Viewers interact with a digital scaled map of the park. Simple colors distinguish animals, bodies of water and humans that cross paths and live parallel lives with animals. The VR upgrade, reminiscent of the Google Earth update, brings viewers more realistically into the 3d space. It does away with the video-game compass and creates more opportunities to explore the map of the park.

During a recent speech at CUNY Jamie Pallot, the founder of Emblematic Group, a virtual reality production company, said that VR is not the future of journalism or storytelling in and of itself. Pallot thinks VR is a new medium that in the next few years will work together with more traditional forms of media, remixing to create new experiences. “Stories which traditionally happened in front of you, can now happen around you in VR” writes Tom Dysinski, Senior Developer at Jam 3, the production company that worked on the VR update of Bear 71, in a case study about the project. Bear 71 works well as a VR piece for four reasons. 🐻

  • The story. Bear 71 locates the viewer in the virtual map of the park. You join the bear in her journey through the park. The interactive experience locates the challenges that humans place on the natural habitat on a scale that is both personal and expansive. The simple and precise computer graphics encourage exploration in ways that are not possible for human visitors to the park. The first person narration, from the perspective of the bear, creates a greater sense of intimacy for the viewers.
  • The use of WebVR. The documentary was developed with Google WebVR technology. This technology tracks head movement to orient viewers in space. The update in technology allows users to experience the documentary using VR headsets in addition to the web-based version of the story. In 2017 WebVR has become increasingly popular and in the next few years could become the standard. Many companies, including Mozilla, are investing in this technology.
  • Voiceover narration for VR. The documentary combines VR with voiceover narration. The scripted narration, a poetic human translation of the bear’s experience, increases empathy for the bears. The VO propels the story forward, bringing viewers to the conclusion of a specific story within the larger virtual world.

Sensor and VR computer graphic. The world of Bear 71 includes data from dozens of sensors that track the bear throughout the park. The opportunity to travel throughout the park, seeing how nature and human visitors interact over time, highlights the often unseen impacts that human development.

Possibilities. Limits: Bear 71 in VR it’s a pioneer work: this is a great project, but at the same time we have some room to improve. For example in the near future we can use volumetric VR to create a more immersive experience as Emblematic did with Greenland Melting or 8i did with dozens of projects.

VR projects bring a host of ethical questions for producers. In the original documentary, trail camera footage of unsuspecting humans highlights the shared environment of the national park. VR adds a level of voyeurism to these experiences and asks viewers about their comfort with omnipresent recording devices in the modern world and the ways they can be used and reused over time.

As with many other interactive projects from the NFB, the opportunity to become part of the story brings new levels of emotional impact to stories that are not possible with text and photography reporting. Compared to this contemporaneous article about human-grizzly interaction, Bear 71 brings new levels of spatial understanding that go far beyond the possibilities of two dimensional maps. Bear 71 orients readers in a map of the space. You experience trains, cars and animals moving through the space, highlighting the interconnected web of the park.

In the next few years VR technology will become increasingly versatile, precise, reliable and easy to use. We imagine that future projects could create extended experiences that recreate the point of view of the bear with lightweight digital 360 cameras attached to tracking collars on animals. At the same time the tech can track the environment of the bear and recreate it with precision in virtual reality.

We see numerous opportunities for journalists to learn from non-linear storytelling and interactive media. Americans spend an average of 5 hours daily on mobile devices. 11% of that time is spent gaming. As the technology to create game-like experiences becomes more accessible to storytellers, early adopters will be able to create new ways for communities to interact with storytelling.