VR headset
Credit: Image by Nan Palmero on Flickr. Some rights reserved

To mark 100 years since the Easter Rising, the BBC is producing an experimental virtual reality documentary, designed to take viewers back to the streets of Dublin to witness the 1916 rising that saw the attempted rebellion against British rule in the midst of World War One.

Catherine Allen, freelance digital producer at the BBC, told delegates at the i-Docs conference in Bristol on 3 March that the mission of 'Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel' is to help audiences engage with history.

"We wanted to explore a completely new method of making knowledge and learning content more accessible," said Allen. 

"In an anonymous survey, we asked a sample of the population who had heard of the Easter Rising. Sixty-seven per cent had, but only 39 per cent of those could actually give any details as to what it was."

However, almost half of those surveyed were interested in experiencing virtual reality, so the team at BBC iWonder took the opportunity to use VR to help audiences understand what it was like to be there during the rising, and give people a deeper understanding of the political context surrounding the event.

Allen said the BBC started working on the project after uncovering archive audio of William McNieve, a man who had taken part in the Easter Rising and who had recorded his experience in Dublin many years after the event had happened.

This eyewitness account, which had remained undiscovered for over 30 years, will help audiences witness the rising as if they were McNieve himself, she added.

"He delivered his story with such clarity and in a step-by-step structure, that when you listened to it with your eyes closed, it felt like you were in the rising.

"We thought if we could create an impression of his memories, if we could interpret them in a style that gives that texture, that feeling of memories, then we would show a new and different side of the Easter Rising, a subject matter that is very much a part of both collective memory and personal memory."

The VR experience is being developed in collaboration with London-based production company Crossover Labs and virtual reality artist Oscar Raby of VRTOV

"To start with, we had a workshop day where we got together and discussed issues like rebellion and youth, what it's like to be young and be passionate about a cause," said Allen. 

"We also looked at what it might be like in VR to inhabit somebody else's memory. We thought about our own memories and what it's like when we remember something – is it in a linear form?

"Can we control things like the speed in which we remember things, or control what we focus on? We had to look at how we transfer all of that to a VR environment."

However, the overall challenge of producing the documentary lied in the spatial storytelling. This means the audience has become familiar with watching documentaries on one screen and being told what to focus on, but they might not necessarily be used to having the freedom to explore the space around them in a virtual reality format.

"Does storytelling work when you take it from being a rectangle screen-based media into the illusion of being spatial?" said Allen. 

"We have to go through a re-training process, engage with spatial storytelling mediums and consider 'what's different here?'"

Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel, will be available in late spring 2016 on Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR platforms, and a video version for web users will also appear on BBC iWonder.

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