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Insights into great virtual reality storytelling

Zillah Watson

Head of BBC VR Hub

The BBC’s VR Hub is sharing the secrets of its success after winning a string of international awards and wowing audiences around the UK.

Now the team behind the Hub has put together a guide showcasing their work and successes – giving others in the immersive industry front-line, practical advice on what makes world-class virtual reality and 360 video.

The VR Hub, launched in November 2017, has created cutting-edge VR films across news, comedy, drama and history, winning praise at the Tribeca, SXSW, Future of Storytelling, Sheffield and Venice film festivals and multiple awards including the Rose d’Or and the Raindance Best UK VR Experience.

Then in summer 2019, we took our content to audiences in over 160 libraries around the UK with our BBC Library VR tour in partnership with Libraries Connected. The astonishing audience response has truly convinced us of the unique power of VR storytelling. Our research has showed us that VR’s unique impact is in creating emotional, memorable connections with places and events. Participants didn’t remember detailed factual information but they reported feeling deeply connected with the places they virtually visited.

BBC VR has also been showcased to wider audiences at major venues across the UK and the world. 

Given the BBC’s credibility, along with its deep understanding of audiences, we were perfectly placed to help bring virtual reality into the mainstream in the same way we led the introduction of early TV and radio. We’ve now experimented with VR across all genres - from news and history to comedy. 

One of BBC VR Hub’s aims has been to underpin great content with research. This has led to a number of collaborations with research partners including at UCL and the University of Barcelona. This research has hinted at just some of the exciting implications for the technology going forward.                                                                                                                            

In particular, two research projects published with Professors Mel Slater and Anthony Steed in Frontiers in Robotics and AI explored how maximising the sense of presence and embodiment can make for more memorable factual experiences for audiences. 

For the BBC this is particularly interesting. If VR provides more memorable experiences than other media, and helps people to engage more deeply with world events, it could be important in serving the BBC’s mission to inform, educate and entertain.

Our library research also backed up this. After watching the BBC News series Congo VR, 83% of viewers in libraries said they would like to watch a full length documentary about the DRC.

As VR and AR headsets become more comfortable, affordable and easier to use, we can hope that the unique powers of immersive storytelling will become ever more accessible.

Understanding and harnessing these techniques means journalists, film makers and broadcasters have a fabulous new toolkit to tell powerful new stories to audiences.

We’ve just announced a new project called Missing Pictures, a co-production with Arte and Atlas V in which film directors discuss one of the projects they weren’t able to bring to the big screen while immersing the viewer in a VR version of their original vision. The first of the series of six experiences features Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York). His missing picture is Birds of Prey, in which a young revolutionary figure was to lead an oppressed society to revolt against the corporations running a futuristic, dystopian version of New York City.

After that project though, the VR Hub will be wrapping up its commissioning and production work. The BBC will continue to identify audience opportunities for VR, and we’ll continue to licence our existing projects, and we’re pleased to announce a year-long VR Pop Tour of UK libraries with the support of Libraries Connected showcasing the best of BBC VR as part of The Novels that Shaped Our World season.

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