The BBC has released a new virtual reality (VR) production today (21 February), an immersive two-part news documentary exploring the water politics of the river Nile.

Presenter-led by BBC Africa correspondent Alastair Leithead, Damming the Nile takes audiences down the river to help explain why the erection of a new project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, could cause the world's first war over water.

"As a foreign correspondent, my whole job is to take people to new places and give context and understanding – and by taking audiences to Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, viewers can explore these issues up close for themselves, and understand the politics of the Nile through a new perspective," Leithead said.

During the experience, viewers are placed in a range of scenarios, from flying through canyons and over waterfalls, to sitting in on interviews with ministers fighting their countries' corners. They even go to lunch with the filming crew, and often 'stand' next to Leithead as he describes the scene in front of them, chatting to the audience as if they were there with him.

"By taking the audience 'on assignment' with us, you get over the problem of always having a crew in the shot – and also, the audiences feel part of the gang, investigating the issue with us," he said.

"Through a mix of different shots, we've told the news story, but interspersed it with experiences, like the view from a hot air balloon or taking part in a camel race, so you drip-feed information, continuously grabbing peoples' attention to keep it exciting.

"So just when the audience has listened to a minister for long enough, you take them out to a different experience, something that's going to keep them engaged."

Damming the Nile marks the first production from the BBC's recently launched VR Hub, which worked on the project with BBC News. Although coverage of the story will appear across radio and television, the journalists wanted to report on the topic in virtual-reality first.

"We gave ourselves a little bit of extra time when shooting so we had time for shots to go wrong, and to learn the grammar for this kind of storytelling," he said.

"One day, we shot 250gb, so what we tried to do was to pick a few shots each night as we went along, render them out overnight, and review them in the morning to see if what we did worked or not – we were learning day by day as we went on. It's a long process."

Zillah Watson, head of BBC VR Hub, explained that the immersive news documentary aims to be a first look at the role virtual reality could play in the future of publishers' news reporting.

"The earlier news projects we had done were asking if we could tell a story at all using VR for news, but Damming the Nile was asking if we could tell an engaging story while taking the audience on a journey – all while understanding the news story," she said.

"We were able to hone the reporting style that works for this, which is different from TV – you have to choose stories where a sense of presence and being there is going to help you understand them better."

The filming, which took three weeks, was done with a drone and a selection of stereoscopic and 360-degree cameras, combined with fully spatialised audio for a more immersive feel.

BBC VR Hub is launching a new BBC VR app on the Oculus Gear VR store today, which will house all the virtual reality experiences from the BBC, including The Turning Forest, a virtual reality fairy tale, and Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel, which is an immersive journey back to the 1916 Easter Rising – also available in 360 degrees on Facebook, YouTube and online.

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