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How David Attenborough is pioneering the next ‘breaking wave’ of technology

TVBEurope talks to the creatives behind The Green Planet AR Experience, powered by EE 5G

A new augmented reality experience based on the BBC’s recent The Green Planet series has opened its doors in London.

The Green Planet AR Experience, powered by EE 5G, has been created by Factory 42 with BBC Studios,

Visitors are guided through six digitally enhanced worlds – including rainforests, freshwater and saltwater worlds, the changing seasons and desert landscapes, by an AR version of Sir David Attenborough, whose AR doppelgänger was created using Dimension Studios’ holographic capture rig, with 106 cameras in full array around him.

The great thing about David is he’s always been a pioneer, from the days of black and white all the way through colour,” John Cassy, founder of Factory 42 tells TVBEurope. “I think for him, the Experience is a new way to engage with younger audiences. My 73-year-old mum and her 7-year-old granddaughter did it together and they loved it. What we tried to do was make it a multi generational thing, because that’s what his shows do so well.”

Production began 14 months ago, with most of that time spent on developing the app visitors use as they move around the Experience.

Having opened last week, tickets for the Experience are like gold dust, selling out within 30 minutes each time they’re made available. “I think audiences are ready to try something again, post Covid,” says Cassy. “They’re intrigued by something that’s a bit different.”

The team at Factory 42 also worked alongside The Green Planet TV series production team, with the show’s executive producer Mike Gunton describing the experience as extremely collaborative. “It’s a technology project, of course, but it’s also a very important creative and editorial project,” he says.

“It’s been a fascinating kind of hive mind enterprise, and I’ve met and worked with people who I would never normally meet. They do things that I don’t understand, but they are magicians producing a sort of alchemy. I think of myself as a filmmaker, but actually, when you’re involved in something like this working with John, the team, it is truly a media project, and that’s what I think is super exciting.

“Just in terms of the sheer kind of creative journey, to be working in this breaking wave of activity, if you’re a creative person it’s so exciting,” continues Gunton. “It’s nerve racking, because it’s easy to do stuff that you’ve done before, but when you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, and that applies to the TV show as well, is the audience going to respond to it in the way that you hope?

“What’s been interesting so far is that they’ve not only responded in the way we hoped, but beyond what we hoped. The reason why it works is because it speaks to everyone. I think it’s hit a sweet spot, and that’s rare in what we do, and so all power to the people who did it. To this day, I don’t really know how they did it, but that doesn’t matter because the Experience is just wonderful!” he laughs.

Gunton adds that Factory 42’s commitment to the project has won plaudits from natural history experts: “They could easily have cut corners and said, ‘It’s more important to make it work rather than actually to make it true’,” he states. “What is I think is really gratifying is that we’ve had people from Kew Gardens who have been around the Experience and they thinks it’s amazing. You’re satisfying people who are bringing a microscope of investigation to this, and in delivering this extraordinary Experience Factory 42 are also bang on the science, bang on the messaging.”

One of the key parts of the whole enterprise is the use of 5G, which has enabled the Factory 42 team to push creative boundaries. “In one of the biomes, David is sat in a boat and there are a little ripples of water around it, and you cannot do that with 3G or 4G,” explains Cassy. “That’s what 5G enables us to do. It’s being rendered from an Edge network, and being sent in real time, very, very quickly with no lag. There’s a whole load of things our team have been able to do with a new toy box. Creatively they are thrilled because they get to absolutely push the boundaries.”

I was in the real boat directing David hiding under the tarpaulin,” adds Gunton, “and seeing him in the virtual boat was slightly freaky because the mannerisms are absolutely uncanny!”

The experience’s 5G technology is being powered by EE, which wants to be key to helping creatives imagine what immersive experiences can look like, says Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s consumer division.

“It’s important everyone understands this is bleeding edge network technology that we’ve brought to bear here as well,” he continues. “There’s this concept of edge compute and edge networks, where you’re basically pushing all of your processing power to the network as close as possible to the customer, that’s going to be really important in the future. The experiences that we’re delivering here are really heavy technical experiences. We’ve got a standalone dedicated 5G layer and edge compute working together. I think it’s probably the first of its kind actually. When we went to some of the cloud providers they suddenly realised this has never been done on this scale before.”

When you brush past a plant, the app understands your proximity and it reacts to what you’re doing,” adds Stephen Stewart, CTO, Factory 42. “We can really only do that because the latency is so low on the standalone 5G network. It gives us an understanding of where you are in the experience, feeds that information back to the BT server that it’s running on, and immediately it changes the animation and interaction that you’re seeing. Because the cycle is so low-latency it gives it that immediacy, which we can’t really do without that 5G.”

This is genuinely an early demonstration of real-world metaverse in action,” states Cassy. “If you aim high on quality and you really think about the design and the purpose of it, and deliver something that’s a really positive experience, we think there is a massive opportunity going forward. To see the world of television, gaming, films and live events coming together, from our perspective as creatives, it’s pretty great. We’re having a lot of fun!”

Returning to the Experience’s aim to educate visitors as much as entertain them, Cassy says this has been a key tenet for Attenborough. “He gets that you have to learn by doing and goes right back to the Lord Reith ideals of educate, inform, entertain. We’ve tried as a team to stick very true to what a 21st century version of that is, in terms of getting people into The Green Planet and being part of it.

“I think if Lord Reith were alive today,” adds Gunton, “he’d say inform, educate, entertain and immerse!”