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Hold the world: Sky's time machine

Watch a trilobite crawl or a pterosaur fly as if they were right in front of you – Sky subscribers can now immerse themselves the time of dinosaurs and experience animals that died out millions of years ago. Together with the Natural History Museum in London and the award-winning documentary filmmaker Sir David Attenborough, the pay-TV provider has filmed a virtual reality documentary that brings natural history to life in a way that has never been possible before.

Diving into prehistoric times

In "Hold the world", users can view rare collections at the London Museum of Natural History up close and from all sides. These are detailed 3D images, the originals themselves are behind glass panes, if they are accessible to the public at all. So far, only researchers and museum staff have had the opportunity to take a close look at them. Thanks to virtual reality (VR), interested laymen can now have a look at them, too. And for this, they don’t even have to go to the museum, but rather can start their journey into the past simply from their sofa at home.

They will be accompanied by the living legend Sir David Attenborough, famous for his BBC nature documentaries. In the VR application, it sits opposite the user as a hologram and tells interesting facts about the natural historical treasures in a conversational tone. However, the user decides for himself which one he wants to look at and in which order. To do so, he chooses between two virtual boxes on the left and right of the table in front of Attenborough and takes the exhibit he wants to learn more about out of the drawer with his own (virtual) hands. Attenborough's explanation starts as soon as the object is placed on the table. In order to view it better, the user can also zoom in, out and rotate it as desired. At the end of each chapter, the presented fossil comes to life and the user experiences the prehistoric animal in action.

The interactive VR experience lasts between 20 minutes and one hour, depending on how the user designs his journey. Meanwhile, he also gets an insight into areas of the Natural History Museum of London that are otherwise closed to visitors. In the documentary, the virtually recreated rooms serve as an atmospheric backdrop for the encounter with history.

Technology at a new evolutionary stage

The holograms of the museum objects as well as those of Sir David Attenborough were elaborately produced at Microsoft Studios in Seattle. In the so-called volumetric capturing method, the exhibits and the documentary filmmaker were recorded with over a hundred cameras from every angle and digitally reconstructed down to the last detail. The virtual reproduction of the museum rooms was made possible with the help of photogrammetry, a process that makes measurements possible using images.

The result is a documentation that makes history in two senses. It's the first one that makes it possible to learn more about the past by experiencing it yourself. It represents a new way of imparting knowledge that will revolutionize learning. Being there to build the pyramids or greet Napoleon in person? No problem for the coming future. But virtual reality is not only the new time machine. Rather, it can also make knowledge more tangible in other disciplines through personal experiences. Whether it's a journey through the human body (anatomy) or immersion in the world of atoms (physics).

"Hold the world" is also a first step into a future in which this special access to knowledge is open to the general public. For now, only Sky's VIP customers can still enjoy the VR documentary. (This is currently available in the Sky VR app for the Oculus Rift, Google Daydream View and Samsung Gear VR. An app version for the Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality Headsets is also planned.) With the advancing development of technology, such immersive applications will become cheaper to manufacture and presumably less exclusive.

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