BBC and Sega 'supercharge' nature for Japanese visitor attraction

Japanese visitors discover what it's like being a penguin in a blizzard Japanese visitors find out what it's like being a penguin in a blizzard

HD and, more recently, 3D have done much to enhance the images we see on our screens and involve us in the stories we're watching as they unfold.

Nature programmes particularly lend themselves to the enhanced quality. Any series presented by David Attenborough, for example, is likely to bring us closer to experiencing the Arctic, the undersea world or life on the Amazon than we'll ever get in reality.

Unless, that is, you can make it to Japan, where such shows, originally made by the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol, are being re-versioned and magnified on an unprecedented scale in a brand-new, unique, hi-tech visitor attraction.

Situated in the Yokohama district, 30 minutes south of Tokyo, Orbi is a joint venture between BBC Worldwide and the Japanese gaming giant Sega, designed to change the way in which people discover the natural world. The purpose-built venue has taken four years to develop and has just opened to the public.

Arctic simulation
Orbi The Earth Theatre dwarfs any IMAX

Orbi presents re-edited programmes such as Frozen Planet in an environment that includes 13 rooms that simulate arctic (or desert, or jungle) conditions.

Visitors are transported to the ice worlds at the far reaches of the planet and can feel for themselves what it's like to be a penguin standing in a blizzard.

These surround the main attraction - the massive Earth Theatre - on which new stories and pictures compiled from the BBC's most stunning archive footage is run.

The screen measures eight metres (almost as tall as a double decker bus) by 40 metres (about half the size of a football pitch) and is larger than any of the world's IMAX theatres.

The technical challenges of re-versioning the footage to fit such a huge screen have been enormous, but the production team, who spent months reformatting the archive in a chilly warehouse in Bristol, say the result is incredible.

Start Quote

During the development we were continually taking huge leaps of faith in a creative sense”

End Quote Charlotte Jones BBc Earth executive producer
'Wimbledon effect'

'During the development we were continually taking huge leaps of faith in a creative sense,' says executive producer Charlotte Jones. 'In Bristol, we were working on a screen a quarter of the size of the final Sega screen, which was still being built. We didn't know whether what we were doing would work until we had our first play-out on site in Japan.'

Re-versioning material for a screen that size has implications for viewers as well. It's so large that it takes your head a second or so to turn from one side to the other. The Bristol producers had to find a way of sign-posting each piece of action for audiences to follow.

'We came to call it the 'Wimbledon effect',' says Jones, 'where you're following the ball backwards and forwards across the net. But with enormous images of polar bears or penguins it was less straightforward. We did it with audio in the end and it works brilliantly.'

Jones says she knew they'd pulled off the re-versioning process when, watching for the first time in the Earth Theatre, she was overwhelmed by the visual experience as a member of the public might be, rather than seeing it as something she'd been working on.

'If you're standing in the theatre, the screen is black and the first thing you hear is a loud roar from the speakers behind you,' she describes.

Follow your ears

'So your eyes follow your ears. You look to the back and you see an enormous paw of a polar bear plant itself in a corner of the screen. As his roar gets louder, his whole image comes into view and, as he moves, your eyes are guided to where he's going. It's a true 360-degree experience.'

There are 50,000 hours of BBC archive footage that could potentially lend itself to the Earth Theatre.

Chief brands officer Amanda Hill says projects like Orbi are an exciting step for BBC Worldwide.

'Younger generations are demanding more than just television,' she says. 'When David Attenborough first began inspiring people about the natural world, radio and tv were the logical places to do that, but these days, there are boundless other opportunities.

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We challenged ourselves to bring people a nature experience beyond what would be possible in the real world. It really is nature supercharged”

End Quote Amanda Hill Chief brands officer, BBC Worldwide

'When we set out to create Orbi we challenged ourselves to bring people a nature experience beyond what would be possible in the real world. It really is nature supercharged.'

Picking poo

Sound and vision aren't the only senses the Orbi experience feeds. You can hear it, feel it, see and smell it. In the development stages, the latter resulted in some bizarre meetings with Japanese Sega executives, who travelled to Bristol with vials of bird poo for Earth Productions to approve and sign off. (BBC Earth Productions is owned by BBC Worldwide.) The chosen guano has been used to accompany footage of seals chasing penguins on a beach.

Visitors also experience temperature changes to match the visual environment, carefully monitored by Orbi's technical director Anthony Winston.

'We take the body temperature of the human visitors down to around minus 20 for a very short period of time, using wind chill,' he says. 'An arctic penguin has to deal with minus 50 to minus 80 degrees centigrade.'

Jones admits such an ambitious project was nerve-wracking. The reward has been seeing the already-extraordinary footage in its new environment - looking as though it was made for the space.

The Worldwide/Earth Productions team continue to work closely with Sega and it seems likely there'll be further projects, which will push the boundaries of what can be done with the BBC's most beautiful images to the extreme.

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