A Natural History Museum VR tour with Sir David Attenborough is just epic

Sky has launched a new VR offering at the Natural History Museum, with its Hold the World experience giving visitors the chance to tour one of London’s most interesting museums with none other than Sir David Attenborough.

The Blue Planet 2 star and all-around national treasure was filmed by over 100 cameras so he could be recreated as a 3D hologram for Hold the World, which will launch at the Natural History Museum this spring and represents a crossover of “interactive video game and TV documentary technology,” according to Sky.

A blue whale, stegosaurus, trilobite, dragonfly, butterfly and pterosaur are among the rare specimens Sir David’s 3D likeness will talk you through in the experience, which lasts between 20 minutes and an hour. Visitors will also be able to virtually pick up and hold the rarities.

So, is Hold the World something you should mark on your calendar this year? We attended an exclusive press preview of the experience to see what it’s all about.

Don’t just mark it – circle and highlight it in as many colours as your have to hand, was the verdict of our Home Technology Editor Ced Yuen, who was at the launch event.

Here are his thoughts.

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Natural History Museum’s Hold the World with Sir David Attenborough VR experience previewed

Hold The World is available in various formats, but my demo used an Oculus Rift headset and two Oculus Touch controllers. The headset lets you look around, while the Touch controllers act as extensions of your hands. You’ll use those to grab things.

The experience is animated, and not actual live footage, but it’s rendered in such detail that you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Once the program loaded, the marble detailing left me in no doubt that I was standing in the Natural History Museum.

I was presented with three doors, leading to the Conversation Centre, the Earth Sciences Library and the Cryptogamic Herbarium. Each was extensively photographed and meticulously recreated in digital form. This is as close as most people will get to peeking inside these restricted areas.

I chose the Earth Sciences Library and found myself sitting across a desk from Sir David Attenborough. Well, a hologram of him, digitally made with footage from over 100 cameras. It’s remarkably lifelike, the most realistic person I’ve ‘met’ in virtual reality without watching a real recording. The only thing odd about this Sir David was the stiffness and slicked-back look of his hair – the real Sir David would explain later in the evening that they had to use a lot of hairspray, since floppy hair causes nightmares for digital captures. They also had to glue down his collar.

Holographic Sir David presented me with two boxes and asked me to choose a specimen. I opened the drawer containing a model skeleton of a Blue Whale – the one currently hanging in the Hintze Hall of the museum. Once I placed it in front of Sir David, he started to lecture me on the specimen.

Having Sir David give you a personal tutorial is one thing, but playing with specimens is properly fun. I could use my arms to zoom in to the specimen, then pick it up and swish it around like a toy plane. Look at dedicated information points and it’ll trigger Sir David’s next speech. Once he’s said everything he has to say, the specimen will start moving. Just to add a bit of dramatic flare.

This is the most engaging science lesson I’ve ever received. There are only about 10 specimens that have been adapted for Hold The World, but all in all you’re looking at over an hour of top-class interactive education.

I’ve used VR for video games and movie tie-in experiences. I’ve also used it used as a means to play back footage shot on 360-degree cameras. Hold The World offers the best elements of all those.

Sir David Attenborough at the Natural History Museum: What he says about the Sky VR experience

For his part, Sir David Attenborough – who attended the preview in person and fielded a handful of questions – said he was extremely excited about the education potential of the experience, proffering that he saw VR as the next big evolution in an AV continuum  that started with black-and-white TV.

”Sharing my passion for the natural world is something I have done for many years through different technologies, from the days of black-and-white TV to colour, HD, 3D, 4K and now virtual reality. Hold the World is an extraordinary next step in how we can communicate and educate people about experiences they wouldn’t usually have access to in the real world. I am delighted about what users can learn and discover from the Natural History Museum’s treasures in this new VR experience – it really is one of the most convincing and bewitching experiences that the world of technology has yet produced.”

Hold the World will be available to Sky VIP customers through the Sky VR app when it’s released, subject to normal entry conditions at the Natural History Museum.

The Sky VR app and Hold the World Experience is supported by Google Daydream View, Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Rift headset, while Hold The World will also be available as a standalone app on Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality devices for a limited time.

Whether or not the museum and Sky will also make arrangements to allow members of the general public to partake remains to be seen. We’ve reached out to both parties to see if any more information is available and will update our preview in due course.

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Additional reporting by Ced Yuen

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