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What has the BBC learned from their VR efforts?

(TECH NEWS) For the past year, the major British broadcaster has been “rapid prototyping” new technologies for educational and news programming. So what have they learned?

virtual reality VR

Not ready to get left behind

The burgeoning technologies of virtual reality and 360 degree video have the potential to dramatically change the way we tell and hear stories, and the BBC doesn’t want to be left behind. For the past year, the major British broadcaster has been “rapid prototyping” new technologies for educational and news programming, according to Zillah Watson of the company’s research and development lab.

Most of the BBC’s prototypes have utilized 360 degree video, since such videos are accessible to viewers without additional hardware. However, they’ve also created six programs for VR headsets as well. The videos can be found on YouTube’s 360 channel, or on BBC Taster, a site for testing audience response to BBC’s experiments.

New and experimental

With 1 million YouTube views, the most successful 360 degree video produced by the BBC is a virtual tour of the Large Hadron Collider, the underground particle accelerator at the CERN lab. Other popular videos include footage of sports fans at a pub watching Leicester win the Premier League Championship, and a film of astronaut Tim Peake blasting off.

Even though VR and 360 degree technology are new and experimental, BBC is ready to dive in. Watson argues that “a strong sense of story disguises technical flaws,” and so the company is ready to give VR and 360 video a shot, even though they might not nail it every time.

Hard-earned lessons

So what has the BBC learned from a year of experimentation? First, they’ve discovered that camera angle is of paramount importance when it comes to shooting in 360 degrees. They learned this lesson the hard way when they used 360 degree cameras to film David Cameron’s announcement of the EU referendum, but made the mistake of placing the 360 degree cameras in the exact same spot as the regular cameras, resulting in footage that wasn’t particularly impressive. If you’re going to bother using 360 video, be sure to show the audience a perspective they couldn’t get from a regular camera.

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The BBC has also learned that animation, even when characters don’t look particularly lifelike, can make a big impact.

A short film called “We Wait” depicting animated refugees waiting for boats to take them to Turkey and Greece made a big splash at the Global Editors Network conference. Says Watson, “we learned that you don’t have to necessarily have that lifelike quality for people to feel moved.”

Lastly, the BBC learned that reporting live in 360 video is a completely different ballgame. According to Watson, reports need to have “a more conversational and informal tone.”

She says that, because 360 degree video is more immersive, reporters need to avoid a “very acted-up TV presence” and instead “be less directive to the viewer and give them the opportunity to look around.”

Indeed, VR and 360 degree video could revolutionize the way we get our news. As Watson explains, “as a viewer, you can look around and see the whole picture yourself, rather than a constructed TV news report.”


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Ellen Vessels, a Staff Writer at The American Genius, is respected for their wide range of work, with a focus on generational marketing and business trends. Ellen is also a performance artist when not writing, and has a passion for sustainability, social justice, and the arts.

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