The Natural History Museum in VR: More than just walking with dinosaurs

This new Google collaboration wants to get people thinking about the natural world
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I will never grow bored of watching other people's reactions when trying VR for the first time. Bunched together with a handful of other journalists at the Natural History Museum, I'm at the same event as a group of school children who are being shown a new VR experience using Google's Cardboard headset. They are seeing a Rhomaleosaurus (a sea dragon in case you were wondering) peel itself off the side of a museum wall and come back to life. The 'wows' as their little heads raise their headsets up to the sky in awe say it all. VR is still blowing minds.

Now it's my turn. I'm transported inside the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin where the bones of a Giraffatitan are revived. It doesn't quite have the same wow factor on me. I've seen plenty of these dinosaur VR experiences. The thing that does strike a chord comes near the end of the video, as the past is connected to the present and the softly spoken narrator talks about those animals in modern day civilisation that are at risk of extinction.

Read this: Explained - how does VR actually work?

It's a sentiment that Sir Michael Dixon, director of the Natural History Museum, wants to also get across as he announced the partnership to bring the museum's galleries, collections and specimens to Google's Arts and Culture website making it available for all to explore.

"Our goal is challenge people to think differently about the natural world. Now more than ever, understanding our past and our present can help us shape the future," Dixon said. "This is a critical moment in our species' existence. If we can start thinking about the natural world in a different way, there is great hope for the future."

Teaming up with Google

The Natural History Museum in VR: More than just walking with dinosaurs

It's the same feeling I get from talking to Matthew Prosser, managing editor of digital content at the Natural History Museum. Prosser played a big part in making sure the museum and Google collaboration actually worked. He works with a team of 10 content producers and writers and as he explained to me, pulling everything together has taken some time.

"We've been working with Google for longer than six months, but the content production phase began about six months ago," he said. "We worked very closely with CGI designers, experts, VR production teams and scientists to research the specimens that we brought to life.

"One of my digital managers worked closely with Google on the Rhomaleosaurus 360-degree app. He was with script writers and CGI teams to coordinate between those producers and several experts in extinct marine reptile biology. There was a lot of back and forth on checking movement, colours, sounds, how the tail would move, the teeth, the direction of the tooth. There's so much detail. It's a thoroughly researched piece of work. The number of edits on the script must have been 25-30 in the end."

Jurassic VR

The Natural History Museum in VR: More than just walking with dinosaurs

That process for an experience that lasts no more than a couple of minutes gives you a sense of the challenge of creating even small VR experiences. This also isn't the first time the museum has embraced the platform. Back in July 2015, it brought First Life a virtual reality exhibition to the museum. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, it took viewers back in time to the beginnings of life on earth, revealing some of Earth's earliest organisms 540 million years ago, and charting their evolution into the first animals.

What wasn't so challenging about the process this time was picking out what should be given the immersive treatment. "It was really just about trying to find the best specimen that would work in a big space where we could bring it to life and have enough space for it to move it around," Prosser told us.

"We just felt this one gave the most interesting insight into a species that most people don't know about. People know what a diplodocus is or a stegosaurus is but we thought, this is a marine reptile. It's not a dinosaur. We felt this one brought something new to the table and could help people learn about a Jurassic they may not have known about before."

Prosser talks about VR's ability to bring specimens to life in a way that isn't really possible through images and illustrations. To paint a more vivid picture of what these animals were like. But the museum's experience using technology to enhance the experience has not always paid off.

"Technology can be seen as quite gimmicky. We have tried things out in the museum that haven't really worked. One of those things was augmented reality. It just didn't go down well but it was a very good learning experience. That's the best way to innovate - to test them and learn from them. For this project, we've come at it from a much stronger angle."

Studying what's in store

The Natural History Museum in VR: More than just walking with dinosaurs

VR is helping to catch people's attention, but it's just the beginning of attempts to further inspire wonder and curiosity in science and nature. Beneath the initial wow factor is something more important. Looking at these extinct creatures should help us learn more about their contemporary equivalents. Prosser uses the examples of sharks, one of the top predators of the sea. The shark is at risk of going extinct because of the impact of humans in the seas.

"What we are trying to do is bring a fusion between hard science and technology to people," Prosser explained. "Underneath the fun, interesting layer of content there is an important message of what the museum does and what the point of the museum is.

"What a lot of people don't know is there are over 300 scientists here who actively research the collections here. They conduct pioneering research looking at the past to understand and see what could be in store for us. It's helping us look at the state of the planet and help predict what could happen in the future."

While the museum sees embracing tech as a way to give access to its collection of artefacts and exhibits that span billions of years to all, it also believes that the virtual experience will not come at the expense of the physical one. After all, five million visitors walk through its museum doors each year.

"We always view digital experiences as enhancing and complementing the physical ones. We never try to replace the physical ones," Prosser told us. "We are always looking at ways digital technology can add something to people's physical experience. It's a delicate balance trying to negotiate between thinking about the opportunities that digital affords and not overloading people with content, trying to find the sweet spot between those two things."

How we test

Michael Sawh


Michael Sawh has been covering the wearable tech industry since the very first Fitbit landed back in 2011. Previously the resident wearable tech expert at Trusted Reviews, he also marshaled the features section of

He also regularly contributed to T3 magazine when they needed someone to talk about fitness trackers, running watches, headphones, tablets, and phones.

Michael writes for GQ, Wired, Coach Mag, Metro, MSN, BBC Focus, Stuff, TechRadar and has made several appearances on the BBC Travel Show to talk all things tech. 

Michael is a lover of all things sports and fitness-tech related, clocking up over 15 marathons and has put in serious hours in the pool all in the name of testing every fitness wearable going. Expect to see him with a minimum of two wearables at any given time.

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