The virtual reality theater experience thanks to David Attenborough

david-attenboroughs-vrSo yesterday I took myself, my kids and two of their friends to the Australian Museum’s David Attenborough Virtual Reality Experience. It was a thought-provoking experience, not for the content as much as for an insight into VR being used in the real world.

When you enter the auditorium you are handed a Samsung headset and a set of earphones. The headset contains a phone which is what actually runs the experience. The first, reassuring thing, is that the headset can be adjusted to deal with those of us who need glasses. After a rather pointless introduction to the Australian Museum, on an old-fashioned 2D screen, from Adam Spencer, the show gets on the road.

You place the headset on and are immediately immersed. David Attenborough’s mellifluous tones start taking you on a journey back to the origins of life. The first display is an excellent example of VR in action: Your point of view is sitting in the center of a huge cylinder with a family tree of life inscribed upon its inner surfaces, you can look all around and see families of life and look down to see the development of life down through the millennia.

The next scenes have us floating in space and then diving under the ocean waves. Both places are, of course, perfect for the VR experience as it’s easy to lose yourself in the idea of floating along. From there it’s like being on a tour – look down and see the trilobite, look behind you and to the left to see the giant sea scorpion and so on. VR is a really good way to do a documentary like this and you can see the real potential in its future.

That said here are some caveats about the specific experience. One of the kids had his headset stop working after 2 minutes, no one helped him and of course I didn’t know because I was locked in my own little world. One of the other kids got almost immediately motion sick, which is a known potential hazard, but it certainly does happen. Finally the experience only lasts 11 minutes, which isn’t long for $15.

In a more general sense, is this a glimpse of the future of entertainment or education? I really don’t know. There’s no question it’s a great way to feel like you are actually in a place. But it’s hard to have your attention directed at what’s important without careful stage management and direction – in that sense the experience is much more like being on a tour than watching TV, you can look the wrong way and miss things. It’s also very individual, you’re not sharing the same experience and that leads me to question whether anyone would bother leaving the house to do this in a theoretical future where VR takes over from movies. The real potential probably does lie in the documentary format, but there’s a lot more development needed to get it to being beyond an interesting trial.

Overall I’d happily recommend the experience at the Australian Museum. The short documentary is informative and well-done and the experience of being part of VR being used in the context of a real-world show is thought-provoking and interesting.

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