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Sir David Attenborough on bringing wildlife into your living room

Sir David Attenborough has had a 60-year career in TV - but he's still interested in new ways of delivering nature to your door.

The filmmaker has seen dozens of broadcasting technologies rise and fall, and he is still at the forefront of emerging ones.

He's often dubbed a national treasure thanks to his services to broadcasting and science communication. And once again he is dipping his toes into new formats, fronting a new virtual reality (VR) experience that goes behind the scenes at the Museum.

Hold the World (commissioned by Sky VR Studios and made by Factory 42) will allow the general public to access precious specimens from the Museum collections in more detail than ever before. Attenborough is hoping that it will help to educate a new generation of natural historians.

At the product's launch at the Museum, he said, 'In the 1950s there were only a few hours a day of TV, but it was a miracle and it was thrilling. But now almost every year there is a new device that allows us to do our jobs better. And that job is bringing things to life in your living room.'

Sir David in the Earth Sciences library, sitting across from the hologram version of himself

Sir David in the Earth Sciences Library at the Museum, meeting the hologram version of himself

 

Animating science

Specimens featured in the experience include a blue whale, a Stegosaurus, and a dragonfly.

The virtual reality models are based on scan data from the specimens, all of which are too precious, delicate or large to be handled in real life.

They were scanned by the Museum's world-leading Imaging and Analysis Centre. This means that although the animals have been enhanced by animators, they are as scientifically accurate as technology will allow.

Participants will be able to virtually pick up, hold, enlarge and bring to life these specimens in a way that until now had never been possible.

Although these virtual models can never replace detailed measurements and technical descriptions, they do have scientific value.

A 3D model of the blue whale skeleton

A 3D model of the blue whale skeleton that featured in the experience

 

Attenborough says, 'What you're looking at is a not a specimen, let's be clear. We are not replacing specimens, neither are we replacing technical descriptions. But in working out how animals behave, I suspect that this will give you a bit more information to chew on.

'To the layman, it brings the reality of the animal to life in a way which a technical description doesn't.

'Even the animators themselves can suddenly realise something that maybe the taxonomists didn't notice, which is the way certain things move and engage, and certain possibilities of how the animal lived and behaved, which aren't immediately apparent just by taking measurements.'

Handling a giant

The biggest specimen to be featured in Hold the World is the Museum's blue whale skeleton. Using a headset and controllers, users can handle a virtual reality version of the 25.2-metre skeleton, which in the real world is suspended in the Museum's Hintze Hall.

Once Sir David has guided the user through some of the whale's most interesting body parts, the animal appears to come to life before the viewer's eyes, swimming through a virtual space at its full size.

 

Attenborough added, '[When children see this experience] I think they will understand what a whale is more clearly. Even for people who know a lot about whales and have watched them for a long time, it gives you a unique view.'

He also acknowledged that the story of the blue whale was an 'encouraging one for anyone who is concerned about conservation'.

In the 1800s the world's oceans were home to an estimated 250,000 blue whales. Decades of commercial hunting drove the species to the brink of extinction, with only around 400 thought to be left in 1966.

That year, governments from around the world gathered in London and took a remarkable decision to legally protect blue whales from commercial hunting. Since then the population of blue whales has steadily grown to its current level of around 20,000.

Sir David said, 'To me it's inspiring in the sense that 30 years ago, it seemed a real possibility that we were saying goodbye to whales. It is one of the earliest examples of humanity getting together internationally to protect something which was in urgent need of protection.'

Lorraine Cornish, Head of Conservation at the Museum, shows Sir David specimens in the Conservation Centre

Lorraine Cornish, Head of Conservation at the Museum, shows Sir David specimens in the Conservation Centre

 

A step away from television

Although both are powerful learning tools, Hold the World is a far cry from Sir David's well-known nature documentaries.

The virtual reality experience allows the user to guide their own learning by choosing the rooms that they enter and the specimens they examine.

Recreating a virtual space for a user to explore was no small feat. It was months in the making, and Attenborough had to be flown to Microsoft Studios in Seattle to be filmed by more than 100 cameras.

This specialist technology captured the presenter from all angles while he read his script, allowing the production team to render him in lifelike 3D.

Museum rooms were first captured using photogrammetry. The virtual specimens, rooms and presenter were then painstakingly brought together. 

A hologram is created using more than 100 cameras in Microsoft studios

A hologram is created using more than 100 cameras in Microsoft studios

 

Attenborough said, 'You are in the room with the specimen and you aren’t restricted to a small little screen. It looks as if it's all around you.

'Television programmes manipulate you in a way, they tell you what the filmmaker wants you to see. And if you have original ideas and questions, what the filmmaker wants you to see if not necessarily what you want to see. But with this, you will be able dictate the film.

'A television programme is in charge of you and you follow along. But in this, you are in charge and take it where you want to go.

'I am a puppet in the viewer's hands. It's very entertaining to be involved in the technology.'

And when the 92-year-old was asked how he had the drive and passion to continue working after all these years, Attenborough whispered, 'I'm having a really great time.'

Related information

  • Commissioned by the Sky VR Studio, Hold the World was produced by immersive content studio Factory 42, in association with Dream Reality Interactive and Talesmith, and through collaboration with the Natural History Museum's digital team.
  • Creature animation was produced by The Mill
  • Photogrammetry of the Natural History Museum spaces was by Alter Equals.
  • The experience was directed by Dan Smith and executive produced by John Cassy and Neil Graham.
  • The VR experience is available within the Sky VR app on Google Daydream View, Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift. 
  • Hold the World will also be available as a standalone app on Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality for a limited time, ahead of the full Sky VR app launching on the platform later this year.