Going Out

Future tech to peer at past — Museum’s virtual reality immerses viewers in ancient oceans

We often look backwards when employing the most forward-thinking technology. Mapping advancements, for example, assist archaeologists in detailing excavation sights; DNA reconstruction is used as a means of tracing ancestry; and state-of-the-art CGI once brought Tupac back to the stage. It all underlines a distinctly human need to understand and engage with our past.

Likewise, the Canadian Museum of Nature’s First Life exhibit uses the latest virtual reality gear from Samsung to immerse viewers in prehistoric aquatic life. The “film,” which debuted on the evening of March 23, is an exploration of Cambrian Oceans 540 million years ago, when significant life first appeared on earth. It’s narrated by everyone’s favourite naturalist, David Attenborough.

Photo: courtesy of Canadian Museum of Nature
Photo: courtesy of Canadian Museum of Nature

For 10 minutes, participants are submerged in sweeping interpretations of this primordial period. With the ability to look up, down, and behind from the vantage point of a journey along the ocean floor, viewers will feel as if they are up-close and personal with surreal creatures, as if they might reach out and touch sea scorpions of concerning breadth. The Opabina — cutest of the bunch — sports a disproportionate cluster of five eyes and a proboscis resembling a detachable showerhead.

“There’s the emotional attachment and understanding of what you’re experiencing,” says Ailsa Barry of the Canadian Museum of Nature. “It ‘opens the eyes’ to thinking about that point in history, and what it means to us now. You can do this much better with an immersive experience than you would, say, reading a text panel.”

Having produced and directed with Attenborough and the BBC, she feels that VR is a step towards the ultimate immersive experience we’ve been conditioned to crave (consider that Attenborough himself has been instrumental in championing camera-advancements that warrant the sophisticated, intimate footage expected from modern natural-history productions like BBC Earth).

Barry foresees diverse content for future applications of VR — the exploration of generally inaccessible places such as the Arctic is one example of opportunity for Canadian content in a museum setting. But she also cites the convergence of education and entertainment as a must, despite the VR market appearing to lean more towards the latter.

Photo: courtesy of Canadian Museum of Nature

Currently, there’s a corporate push for the technology’s use as a gaming application, but this could be one of its key setbacks — the sophistication just isn’t there yet. This flaw extends to First Life too. Despite its panoramic depth, the feature is noticeably low-resolution. Its graphics aren’t up to par with 2D counterparts, and for a market that thrives on increasingly life-like rendering, that’s a tough sell.

Barry noted that, for her, the virtual aspects of a museum would never supplant the more traditional features. But it’s easy to see why her approach to virtual reality as a vessel for complex storytelling has promise.

One of the most engaging parts of First Life comes in the form of a timeline of life on earth, wherein the spectator is suspended in a vortex detailing the lineage of species. It’s a brilliant way of communicating the absolute vastness of its subject, and of our species’ relative youth. By situating viewers in this space, one can begin to wrap their head around the idea. The overwhelming temptation is to look down, and by the vortex’s logic, back. This precious perspective is one of the most lucrative things virtual reality — or any educational institution, for that matter — could think to offer.