When the BBC first began broadcasting in October 1922, one of the biggest challenges it faced was producing radio content that would make people want to buy a wireless. And when television began to rise to prominence in the 1930s, the same again was true — the broadcasting giant was forced to think about how it could compel the public to go around to a neighbour's house and tune into moving images on a box.
Fast forward almost a century, and the BBC finds itself back in the same position, only this time the question is how to get people into virtual reality. Through a new dedicated app, BBC VR, it will be producing a number of projects for the platform, hoping to spur more viewers into experiencing the news in a different, more immersive light.
To mark the launch of BBC VR, a two-part series, Damming The Nile, will be available for those with a Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR, as well as through its new BBC virtual reality hub. In the 28-minute story, viewers are taken up and down the River Nile, through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, as the BBC's Africa correspondent Alastair Leithead tells the story of growing tensions within the region regarding the politics of water control.
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This isn't the first VR project from the BBC, but it does represent a leap in VR news storytelling. The challenge was to take the geopolitics currently surrounding the Nile and make an experience which was not only immersive, but one that also enhanced the story past the capabilities of TV and radio.
"As a foreign correspondent, your whole job is to take people to places and give them context and understanding, and actually taking the user there in VR is job done. I'm still narrating it and pointing you through it, but it's a great way of telling the story a different way," said Leithead.
"Users are sitting through half an hour of VR, which is really unusual, because the rulebook says that around 12 minutes is the period when people switch off. So just when you're bored of seeing another minister, and having a look around his desk, suddenly you're in a balloon. It's similar to a documentary, you grab people at the peaks.
"Just when it starts tailing off, another thing comes along, and that means you have to drip-feed the story along. In that sense, it's not like TV or radio storytelling, but actually a bit of both. In TV, you have 5-6 seconds before you move on, but here you have to take your time, you have 30-40 seconds per shot. You need to give the user time to look around. You can't cram it full of information, you have to let it breathe."
And the journey through the Nile is exactly the kind of story which is suited for the platform, according to Zillah Watson, the BBC's head of VR commissioning.
"What you can't do with virtual reality filmmaking is close-ups and cutaways, you have to choose stories with a sense of presence and being there is helping you understanding the story better. So visiting a temple in Ethiopia, seeing the vistas of the Nile, standing in the Karnak Temple in Egypt, these are the kind of things that work well in VR," she said.
Since this is a new venture for the BBC, the challenges aren't limited to picking the right story for VR. Leithead noted that the crew allowed for a couple of extra days to deal with any potential tech issues, as well as simply getting to grips with the style VR storytelling requires.
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"I've not done it before. The extra cameraman we brought with us was very experienced and great, but we were trying new stuff – you know, seeing where the camera was going to be, how it interacts with us. If the viewer is essentially on the ground, that feels odd, but if they're, for example, sat at the table and we pour them a glass of water when we're interviewing someone, they feel immersed," he said.
And while Leithead also noted there was also plenty of post-production and work to stabilise the likes of drone shots of the Nile and quick-walking through Ethiopian villages, it still all tied back to creating a finished product that made people want to pick up a headset.
When we strapped on the Gear VR and watched Damming The Nile during a demo, we found the quality is typical of mobile VR. After all, it doesn't matter a great deal what resolution you're shooting in when you're relying on the power of a smartphone, as opposed to the might of a PC, or the upcoming, enhanced power of standalone VR. Close-up faces are fairly easy to see, but trying to make out things in the distance is still a challenge for mobile VR.
That's not to say you don't feel immersed. The two-part series does a great job of catching your attenion with sound and keeping you involved with a candid, to-camera reporting style, but we get the feeling that a lesser landscape and story would make the technology's limitations more palpable. At least until the BBC grows its reach, that is.
"Unfortunately, we're still limited by what the headsets can do," says Watson. "But it's vastly better than what we could do even a year ago. Our focus is on experiences that you can only really do in a VR headset, and we're betting on high-end mobile VR as the best place for us, versus the headsets from Oculus and HTC that are better suited for things like gaming."
Leithead agrees that the BBC is still experimenting with the tech. "Not everyone's got a headset, but hopefully, as they get cheaper, and more companies release headsets this year, people can discover it. We've got to start somewhere with this, and we're in a great position to be able to do so when we're already covering these kind of stories," he added.
So, after holding the viewer's hand through a trip along the Nile, the BBC will now focus on expanding its reach through projects spanning across more genres in the coming year and, in turn, hopefully generate a broader audience for the platform.
They include The Turning Forest, an award-winning VR fairytale, Easter Rising: Voice Of A Rebel, a step into one man's memories of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, and Bloodhound, a ride in the supersonic car aiming to break the world land speed record. Another news story, Himalayas: A Trek To School, which focuses on the journey of two sisters travelling six hours each day to receive education, is also set to land on the BBC VR app.
"If it doesn't take off then we'll move onto the next thing," said Watson, "but it's within our remit to explore the storytelling possibilities of new technology."
And with this technology sitting on the cusp of a new tier, in the form of standalone headsets such as Oculus Go, which should act as a halfway house between mobile VR and high-end VR, it appears the BBC is well placed to capitalise on VR's continued climb and help usher in a new way to bring viewers the news.
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