Pushing the boundaries of possibility: VR, spacewalks and the BBC

The BBC’s VR spacewalk experience offers participants a chance to virtually float in the atmosphere, carry out maintenance work on the International Space Station (ISS) and communicate live with mission control in a NASA-approved expedition to the cosmos. It uses leading-edge VR technology to create hyper-realistic surround effects as well as total body immersion in a narrative-led, fully interactive VRX project. And it has been described by Wired magazine as “terrifying – in a good way”.

“It’s early days for immersive technologies and there is still much to learn about the editorial and technical challenges in VR, but the BBC is exploring what is possible and understanding its potential for audiences in the future.”

— Tom Burton, Head of BBC Studios

Burton is also the creative director and producer of Home, the 15-minute spacewalk experience that, as he explains, “brings together VR, storytelling and some of the latest thinking in pushing levels of immersion to give people their moment in space”. It’s a collaboration between BBC ScienceBBC Learning, BBC Digital Storytelling and award-winning immersive production studio REWIND.

This is something completely new for the BBC, Burton confirms, pointing to the fact it is one of the few VR projects to come from within the organisation, rather than being agency created. And with PricewaterhouseCoopers predicting 76% annual growth in the VR sector over the next five years, with UK set to be the largest market in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, it’s a sector that the BBC are keen to lead in.

Transformative mediums are rare. Andy Conroy, Controller of BBC Research & Development, points to radio in the 1920s, TV in the ‘30s and digital in the ‘80s as game-changing innovations that the BBC helped pioneer and develop for UK audiences and the creative sector, adding “It’s in that tradition we are exploring 360 video and VR now, in collaboration with the industry”. As Tom Burton states:

“The BBC should own this. VR is an important part of where we see digital content going, but it will be a couple of years before it becomes commercially viable.

For now, it’s about putting the BBC brand out into the world and also integrating this work into our core business, using the skills we have available. Home is a strong start. Using a powerful dramatic narrative alongside immersive technology, it showcases both the tech innovations and the emerging language of storytelling in this medium, designed to encourage and enhance the public’s interest in space. And it’s authentic – based on a VR training simulation used by NASA, as well as the experience of real astronauts.

Users get to feel like what it’s like to be an astronaut floating 250 miles above earth, as they step into ‘space’ from the ISS on a mission to check its exterior status. NASA and ESA experts advised the project and astronauts who tried the experience “felt it was the real deal” confirms REWIND.

RWD // Home – A VR Spacewalk from REWIND on Vimeo.

Created in Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) and delivered on HTC Vive accompanied with treated, spatial audio, BBC scriptwriter Marco Crivellari developed the narrative alongside teams from the BBC and REWIND. Additional high tech resources include a gaming chair that provides haptic feedback, as well as a Bluetooth heart rate monitor to recreate the sound of the user’s heartbeat. For selected live experiences, a link to ‘mission control’ uses the monitor to supply real-time advice and add an extra dimension to the narrative. The ISS was built to real-world scale using the most detailed and accurate plan available, the Haynes Manual.

“We wanted to tell a compelling story – we describe it as interactive theatre,” says Matthew Allen, REWIND co-founder and co-director of Home. He describes how they pushed what UE4 was capable of to create a more experiential user journey; “The engine’s creators probably didn’t think it would one day make a full-size earth”.

Creating that sense of scale and that sense of – literally – space was one of the challenges for the studio, as well as authentically developing the feeling of moving in space outside the ISS. Matthew explains:

“We devised a system which gave a feeling of floating in zero gravity, however, we had to be mindful of the user experience; we had to strike the right balance between giving the correct feelings and ensuing users could successfully navigate through the experience and not just float away.”

When it came to the challenge of creating the ‘sound of space’, an anechoic – non-echoing – chamber was used to completely absorb sound reflections and present a completely silent environment – in space, no one can hear you scream…

Technical challenges aside, one of the key issues for Tom Burton was straddling the two worlds of new versus old school media, translating the conversations and understanding the requirements of both worlds to make the end result work.

Timescales can also be a problem in a VR world that is moving so fast, particularly as the original idea was conceived a couple of years before the finished project was launched. “I wanted to create something that looked like it was made two years in the future, so that it wouldn’t look out of date once it had been in the market for three months,” he explains.

The reaction to Home has been extremely positive and the experience has won several awards, including a silver Digital Craft Lion at Cannes and Best Interactive VR Experience at Byron Bay International Film Festival. It’s available to download from Stream for HTC Vive and Oculus Stores for Oculus Rift. It has already achieved its objective of promoting what the BBC can do in this area, having travelled around the world and has even played in international space centres. It is currently being used by astronauts for an interactive educational programme. Within the BBC it has showcased an innovative way of working and flagged the importance of branding, promoting projects that bring value to the BBC.

Future plans for the BBC in this area include working with Mixed Reality (MR) concepts, where an experience starts in Augmented Reality (AR) and moves into VR. Current projects involve working with a global tech partner to create a story-led piece that explores the use of character, as well as an AR venture that works with the human body. Tom Burton explains

“There’s lots of creativity out there, but not lots of business. I like to work with ideas that we can bring to fruition, to create things that people get to see and engage with, rather than to wrestle with overly ambitious plans that may never be finished. I like structured thinking and projects that move us on a few steps each time. If everybody did this, we would make real progress in the sector.”

The value for now, as he sees it, lies in creating a reputation for the BBC in the industry, to find new audiences and new clients.

“We want to build strength in this area now, to build a portfolio and reputation. While everything is fragmented at the moment, by 2010, platforms and hardware will start to provide greater opportunity.”

Words by Bernadette Fallon

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BBC, HTC Vive, Oculus, REWIND, Virtual Reality, VR