In the first of a series of posts we look at the fast moving developments of 360° and virtual reality (VR), the revolutionary image technologies that immerse viewers in other worlds, and whose rise has been made possible through smartphone technology. Over 90% of VR is currently used in gaming, but how are sectors such as art and journalism beginning to apply this revolutionary tool as it comes out of the experimental lab and into the world?

Somerset House Courtyard, London, England, United Kingdom

Thresholds at Somerset House

This May we donned VR headsets and entered a specially constructed room in London’s Somerset House, where we were able to walk around a virtual reconstruction of William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1839 exhibition of early photographic prints, a ground-breaking show of its time which paved the way for photography as we now know it.

Artist Matt Collinshaw digitally reconstructed a grand hall in King Edward’s School, Birmingham where we could see digital mice running across the floor, under the glass vitrines displaying Fox Talbot’s pictures. The delicate photographs and photograms, which no longer exist in reality, could be virtually ‘picked up’ and examined.

Other museums are also beginning to push boundaries with VR, including London’s Science Museum, which has recreated Tim Peake’s descent to earth from the International Space Station, and the British Museum, whose artefacts will soon be available to view virtually from across the world.

Journalism

Journalists picking up on VR’s potential to put you directly in the scene include LA based Nonny de la Peña, whose pioneering work, Project Syria, allows you to visit a street in Aleppo as a bomb goes off, and later, a refugee camp, in order to understand the experience of child refugees. With these productions, de la Peña taps into VR’s potential to provoke ‘deep empathy’.

The Guardian also makes good use of VR in its award-winning 6×9, letting you step into solitary confinement in a US prison, and Underworld, a piece that invites you on a virtual tour of London’s Victorian sewers.

Meanwhile, sports journalism has begun to embrace the medium’s potential with BT Sport broadcasting the recent Uefa Champions League Final in 360-degree virtual reality, on YouTube, allowing viewers to select their own camera viewpoint on the match.

Waterfalls seen from Flam Railway route, Norway

Education and Advertising

VR could revolutionise education by letting pupils experience immersive journeys into the subject matter they are studying, and Google Expeditions has already taken up the challenge of ‘bringing lessons to life’ by offering virtual trips ranging from Antartica to the surface of Mars.

The advertising world is busy exploring the possibilities of VR with Häagen-Dazs developing a much anticipated VR film about the plight of the honey bee, a forward-looking exercise in ‘brand storytelling’. Meanwhile Expedia takes viewers on a journey along the Flåm Railway line for an immersive view of the beautiful Norwegian countryside.

Like Expedia, pioneering brands in the travel industry  are beginning to explore the obvious potential of VR to help their customers visualise destinations, while others remain more sceptical, perhaps fearing that people may not need to travel at all if they have a viable VR alternative. We’ll look at these questions, and how other travel brands are using VR in a later post in this series.

How do I watch?

You can dive straight into the latest immersive film and video content on Youtube’s recently launched new channel dedicated to VR. Most of the media there, as well as those outlined in this blog post, require headsets for the full experience, although you can often see a pared down version on a screen or smartphone without a headset at all.

Google Cardboard is perhaps the most cheap and accessible headset, allowing you to slot your smartphone into its simple structure. For the next step up, try the Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream.  The more sophisticated VR headsets require the help of a powerful PC, meaning that in the main VR is still a niche technology that remains unknown to the majority of us. However, we predict that this will change as consumer VR products get cheaper.

Useful links to find out more about VR

The Guardian’s guide to VR

VR headset guide by The Verge

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