The BBC is using VR to tell the story of the 1916 Easter Rising

The BBC has made a virtual reality documentary about the 1916 Easter Rising, designed for Oculus Rift and set to be released as part of its burgeoning slate of VR and 360 video projects.

Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel is based on the eyewitness testimony of a 19 year-old rebel who took part in the fight against the British. The idea is that the audience sees and hears the events of the uprising from this singular perspective, rather than the relatively objective perspective of a traditional TV documentary.

In a blog on the BBC, Andy Conroy, controller of BBC research and development, describes the piece as “a ground-breaking new form of history documentary”, offering a glimpse at “how VR might create a completely new way for people to engage with the past – by living through a protagonist’s memories and perceiving events from their perspective.”

As subject matters go, it’s a markedly weighty topic that cuts away from the flashy bells and whistles of most current VR demos. There is a sizeable bucket worth of ethical questions about representation, and the risk of fetishising historical events as immersive entertainment, but it’s heartening to see the BBC tackle these questions head on.

From the looks of it, Easter Rising, favours a stylised aesthetic over gritty photorealism, and it will be interesting to see how this effects the way the viewer relates to the characters and events around them.

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Elsewhere in the BBC’s VR unveiling is Home – A VR Spacewalk, designed for HTC Vive and inspired by conversations with Tim Peake about NASA’s training program. As if walking in space wasn’t terrifying enough, the project also involves your own heartbeat being played into your ears via a Bluetooth monitor strapped to your chest. Then there’s The Turning Forest, a fairytale adventure inspired by everything from Gustav Klimt to In the Night Garden, which plays up the use of binaural sound.home_-_logo

In both cases, it’s interesting to see the BBC foreground the use of sound. Personally, I’ve found sound to be a crucial part of virtual reality – a great example being the use of voice and noise in the effectively restrained Notes on Blindness.

Perhaps the most controversial VR project to be announced by the BBC is We Wait, a fictional depiction of migrants making the journey from Turkey to Greece on a smugglers’ boat. Like Easter Rising, the aim is for the viewer to inhabit the role of a person swept up by an important social and political event – in this case the experiences of displaced people travelling across Europe. Also like Easter Rising, the aesthetics are highly stylised, this time with the help of Wallace and Gromit creators Aardman Animations. 

Easter Rising, Home and We Wait are all set to premiere in the Alternate Realities strand of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, which kicks off tomorrow. They will then be available to download via BBC Taster over the next few months. 

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