Sir David Attenborough is giving behind-the-scenes tours of the Natural History Museum as a hologram

Sir David Attenborough will give behind the scenes tours of the Natural History Museum in a new virtual reality experience that Microsoft has helped to create.

The ground-breaking experience lets people visit parts of the London museum usually closed to the public with the world-famous broadcaster and hear him talk about the rare artefacts and objects on display, all from the comfort of their own home.

Sir David was filmed by more than 100 cameras at Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studio in Redmond – there are similar studios in London and San Francisco – in order to be recreated as a hologram for Sky’s Hold the World experience, which was conceived and produced by London-based content studio Factory 42 for Sky’s VR app.

The footage was combined with photogrammetry – overlapping photos – which was used to recreate the Natural History Museum. The museum’s CT scanning department then worked with museum scientists and animation teams to create accurate models and animations of a blue whale, a stegosaurus, a trilobite, a dragonfly, a butterfly and a pterosaur, among other animals. Combining these technologies has never been attempted before.

“Sharing my passion for the natural world is something I have done for many years through different technologies, from the days of black-and-white TV to colour, HD, 3D, 4K and now virtual reality,” Sir David said.

“Hold the World is an extraordinary next step in how we can communicate and educate people about experiences they wouldn’t usually have access to in the real world. I am delighted about what users can learn and discover from the Natural History Museum’s treasures in this new VR experience – it really is one of the most convincing and bewitching experiences that the world of technology has yet produced.”

Users of the app can choose to explore a number of locations in the museum, such as the Conservation Centre, the Earth Sciences Library and the Cryptogamic Herbarium. In each of the locations, Sir David sits opposite the user and invites them to examine and virtually handle several rare specimens. The objects “come to life” and can be enlarged and expanded to help users learn more about their history and see a level of detail that they wouldn’t normally get.

Professor Paul Barrett, a Natural History Museum dinosaur expert who worked on the stegosaurus model and animation, said: “Virtual reality is a really important new tool for getting our specimens out there and letting the public see them really up close and manipulate them. It’s the first time people will actually be able to hold these objects, pull them around and make them larger and smaller. It’s been a really exciting development for us here, because we are also seeing it in new ways for the first time, too.”

Sir David Attenborough in Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studio in Redmond

Sir David Attenborough in Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studio in Redmond

Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studio was integral to the experience. A total of 106 cameras captured Sir David, before Microsoft used computer vision algorithms to create textured 3D surfaces of him. The company then processed the footage to provide consistencies between the images and compressed the video for easier transmission and viewing.

The Redmond studio has captured thousands of performances over the past seven years from musicians, athletes, actors, educators, dancers and even animals. These include astronaut Buzz Aldrin, actor George Takei, musician Reggie Watts and singer Billy Corgan.

The London studio, called Dimension, is the first of its kind outside the US and has been opened with Microsoft partners Hammerhead and Digital Catapult. Dr Jeremy Silver, Chief Executive of Digital Catapult, said: “Dimension enables production of extraordinarily life-like digital assets making stories, experiences and applications even more compelling. Compared to current animated content, the potential impact of truly lifelike virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality experiences is enormous, putting the UK at the heart of the immersive industry.”

Sir David Attenborough in the Earth Sciences Library

Sir David Attenborough in the Earth Sciences Library

A report by PwC last year revealed that the UK virtual reality sector is expected to grow at an annual rate of 76% over the next few years, making it the fastest growing UK entertainment and media market. Phil Stokes, PwC’s UK head of entertainment and media, said there will be 16m VR headsets in Britain by 2021.

Hold the World will be available in Sky’s VR app this spring and as a standalone app on Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality.

How to use Hold the World

  • When you first put on the headset (while holding two controllers in your hands) and look where your hands would normally be, you see that your controllers have become digital “hands”. These hands grip when you pull the triggers on your controllers.
  • The experience starts in the Marine Reptiles gallery of the Natural History Museum in London. This room has several doors that lead off to other parts of the experience and acts as the “menu page”. Behind you, the marine reptiles gallery drops off into the distance with huge ocean-going reptile skeletons mounted on the walls.
  • You can now choose to enter one of three doors, labelled Earth Sciences Library, Cryptogamic Herbarium or Conservation Suite.
  • Once you’ve entered a room, you are seated at a desk with drawers on it, where Sir David Attenborough appears, in three-dimensional virtual form, and asks you to look inside the drawers.
  • Now, using your digital hands, you can open the drawers. Inside each one you will find a fascinating fossil or specimen from the museum’s collection. You can turn the objects around in your digital hands, look at them from any angle and enlarge them to several times their natural size for a closer look.
  • There is a blue whale skeleton, a giant butterfly, a dragonfly, a stegosaurus, a trilobite and a skull from an ancient flying reptile.
  • Once Sir David has told you about each object, the fossil or skeleton comes alive and demonstrates some unique behaviour in a magical and dramatic display.
  • Once you have done the “Sit down with David” section of the experience you will have unlocked three more objects: a rat flea, an ancient ‘stem mammal’ skull and an elephant-bird egg. You will also have unlocked the ability to “Supersize” the objects, enlarging them up to even more times their natural size and take part in a quiz.