A new exhibit at the Natural History Museum presents a thrilling intersection of film storytelling, virtual reality technology, and scientific wonder that takes visitors on a fully-interactive, six minute deep sea scuba experience. theBlu: An Underwater VR Experience, a collaboration between the NHM and Venice-based VR company Wevr, and is directed by Jake Rowell (Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, Superman Returns). Nature enthusiasts, Call of Duty fans, and everyone curious about the future of VR will want to line up for a museum experience like no other. The show opens Monday, March 6.
Virtual Reality is here.
There’s no denying it, and visiting this experience with tweens and teens offers parents an excellent opportunity to learn more about the emerging technology from producers who care as much about the storytelling and content as the advances in the viewer experience. VR is already being used for technical training purposes (to aid surgeons and pilots), for charities (to help donors understand a refugee crisis, for instance), and for gaming. Proponents claim that VR’s immersive experience can help to create empathy in viewers – click here for an intriguing NPR story about current debate on this topic. Whether VR is an empathy-aid or not, the language of the new medium and the storytelling itself has to be strong to win viewers. Which is exactly why we like this exhibit so much – viewers really feel as though they are on scuba adventure, being shown wondrous vistas and creatures of the deep ocean. It’s fun, to boot.
Visitors to theBlu: An Underwater VR Experience begin their journey in a lounge area inside the museum gallery space, where they gradually acclimate to the idea of being underwater, aided by glowing NHM ocean specimens and projections of reef footage. Five visitors at a time can enter the “pods,” where they don a HTC Vive virtual reality headset. Friends and families, at a seating area nearby, can watch the action on a monitor where they can see the user’s interactive underwater experience streaming in real time.
Highlights of the three environments displayed in the 6-minute experience include: an encounter with an 80-foot blue whale as it swims past a sunken ship; a magnificent undersea migration on the edge of a shallow coral reef, with turtles and swarms of jellyfish gliding by, and colorful anemones reacting to the guest’s touch; and a deep dive into an iridescent abyss, where hidden creatures including angler fish and squid appear with the use of a virtual flashlight.
Who Should Visit:
Only children 10 and up are able to participate in this adventure. It’s not because it’s particularly scary — although most everyone will be startled and back away from the whale and several other creatures that sneak up on you. But there are many instructions to follow, and the museums needs to insure safety. Visitors wear both a headset for the VR glasses and a separate set for the ears, which are heavy, though not uncomfortable.
If you haven’t tried VR yet, you’ll have this initial startling realization: once the headsets go on, you are suddenly, truly, alone. It’s a wholly immersive, and powerful experience. You get used to it quickly, however and we loved how this application was interactive, allowing us to move and spin about, as well as reach out with a control and interact with fish and plants. The headliner is the great Blue Whale, but a giant squid and very cool plants called anemones also delight the imagination.
How Did this Come About?
Lori Bettison- Varga, President and Director of the Museum, came to NHM with a mandate to find new and better ways to engage museum goers – it’s fair to say that this exhibit does just that! Other museums have done VR exhibits, but this is the first truly interactive experience. As Director Jake Rowell put it, “This is an experiment for all of us”.
theBlu is the first part of what will be a three-part series of exhibits based on a VR film showcased at Sundance last year. Wevr helped the museum create a cut of the movie designed to inspire museum visitors, scientists, and VR enthusiasts about the power and potential of the medium.
How to Visit — Tickets and info
The exhibit runs from March 6 to April 28, 2017. Advanced timed-tickets are required and can be purchased online. Tickets are $8 for Members and $10 for Non-members. Children must be 10 years of age or older to participate, due to safety reasons and ability to follow instructions. Guests under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
Images courtesy of Wevr and the Natural History Museum of LA County
Written by Cary Bickley