How We Made ‘ecosphere’: From a Chance Encounter to New Journeys

Oculus Blog
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Posted by PHORIA
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March 18, 2021
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Watch all new episodes of ecosphere: journeys on Oculus TV or via the ecosphere app.

Earth Day’s coming up next month, and to celebrate, we’re adding to the ecosphere family!

ecosphere: journeys is all new, never-before-seen content featuring the ecosystems and endangered species introduced in the original ecosphere episodes. From Kenya’s wild savannas to Borneo’s ancient jungles and the tranquil islands of Raja Ampat, explore new journeys and meet precious wildlife in stunning cinematic VR.

So for everyone who cried out, “We want more ecosphere content,” you got it!

We thought in honor of this release, we’d share a little bit about our journey as a small Australian XR studio entering the universal realm of natural history, and how we’re making impactful storytelling in VR our personal mission.

What Was It Like Discovering VR180 Storytelling?

When we met Eric Cheng for the first time, the stars really did align.

We had wrapped our AR conservation series, REWILD, and were only just unearthing how powerful VR content can be. Between researching VR therapy with the Royal Children’s Hospital and producing our own Gorilla-proof VR180 camera housing with Zoos Victoria, we were breaking fresh ground.

A note: The housing worked a treat, and the Gorillas loved their closeup moment.

Then along comes this incredibly accomplished wildlife photographer and all-around great human, Eric Cheng, who was also coincidentally the Head of Immersive Media at Oculus. A perfect alignment of passion for nature and technology.

Eric was pushing the boundaries of what VR can do working on Adam Savage’s Tested VR. Using Z Cam’s K1 Pro and best practice capture techniques, they created the most wonderfully detailed and realistic VR scenes. And boy oh boy, were we in absolute awe.

So we struck up a conversation with Eric and found common ground in the convergence of natural history and VR. We asked, why do we all seem to feel more connected with each other, and animals, in VR? There’s clearly something special about the intimacy of stereoscopic footage that’s more convincing than a 2D documentary and more deeply felt than the latest news articles. But how can we capture that inexplicable essence and channel it in a way that makes a difference for the planet?

This is where our curiosity voyage began.

Planting a Seed and Watching It Grow, Right Before the World Shut Down

Once ecosphere was greenlit, we had this big opportunity to combine our skills with a passion about harnessing XR for good. Eric dropped into our PHORIA HQ in Melbourne not once, but twice, so we could move really quickly on the design and technical direction for the series / platform. From there, we would go out into the world with the support of the World Wildlife Fund and visionary natural history documentarians Silverback Films—to connect with the amazing humans working day and night to protect nature.

Little did we know, nature had an idea of its own.

We hit the ground running with less than 12 months to produce three episodes, filmed across three continents. Our own experiential director, Joseph Purdam, knew he wanted to capture footage above land and underwater, giving each episode a unique focus and technical element. To achieve this, we partnered with aerial pioneers XM2 and aquatic innovators Blue Ring Imaging. With their help, we got our prototype VR180 cameras off the ground and into the vibrant coral depths of the ocean.

Underwater Housing with Blue Ring Imaging

UAV Drone mount with XM2

Fast forward to February 2020. In just a few rapid months, we’d explored the vast savannahs of Kenya, dived the biodiverse coral reefs of Raja Ampat, and met the gorgeous baby orangutans in Sepilok, Borneo. There’s plenty of funny and poignant stories to tell there, but we’ll save that for another time.

Then by March, Melbourne was in complete lockdown. International travel bans were in full swing and everyone was home-bound—where we would stay for a very long time.

The long months of Melbourne’s strict lockdown presented truly unique challenges. We had hard-drives upon hard-drives of ecosphere content, with just six months until the premiere, and our post-production team were in complete isolation from one another. We were reduced to Ubering hard-drives back and forth between houses, establishing server stacks inside living rooms and grinding away at all hours to connect with ecosphere’s partners based all over the world. This included our talented narrator, Anna Friel, who recorded voiceover during lockdown from her closet!

In the face of adversity, we pulled together three 15-minute episodes of stunning VR180 impact storytelling. The journey to get there was a strange and gruelling reality, but once we did it, we knew that nothing could stop us in future—not even a pandemic.

To all the creators out there who are still struggling with burnout—we feel you. It’s hard to rediscover true rest after so long running on fumes. So if you can find a moment to glide through the turmoil with ecosphere, we’re honored to have helped in a small way.

So ecosphere Grew Tall and Strong

ecosphere has delightfully spawned across the Oculus Platform. We’ve seen over 250,000 downloads of the app, hours of streamed content inside Oculus Venues, and now more than 650,000 views on Oculus TV—and climbing! It’s exciting to see people flock to the platform seeking out Natural History stories and finding our content.

Nothing can ever replace real travel. But being able to sensorially visit a place and meet the locals in VR is undoubtedly the next best thing. It may not have the same benefit as walking barefoot on grass or taking a deep breath of salty sea air, but it does reduce our carbon footprint. And it gives people who can’t travel, even without the barriers of a pandemic, the opportunity to see the wildest parts of the world up close.

There were so many wonderful moments from the production of ecosphere, and we’re all still buzzing about it. Here’s a few snapshots from the team:

Joseph Purdam, Director & Cinematographer

“There really is a way forward for environmental conservation, and it’s in collaboration and commune with local and indigenous communities. The complete ubiquity of acceptance of VR as a powerful medium. We shared rushes in the field with locals, and watching native Kenyan tribesmen immerse themselves in VR and come out with ear-to-ear smiles left me with no doubt that this is a powerful medium!”

Eric Cheng, Executive Director

“I was really happy to see the success of the underwater shots. The camera housing was finished less than a month before the Indonesia trip. There were many behind-the-scenes photos of Joseph acting as a human tripod, wearing a four-axis gimbal stabilizer or swimming underwater as a VR aquaman”.

Angie Davis, Writer & Producer

“It was an incredible experience being welcomed by the communities we visited in Kenya, Borneo, and Raja Ampat, listening to their perspectives and how they approach conservation. VR180 is an incredible medium for human-inclusive nature stories as you are really able to teleport a viewer to the place and give them a seat beside the custodians of the land and learn from their experiences and wisdom.”

Here’s to New Journeys!

Since ecosphere was released in June 2020, the community response has been epic.

“Would appreciate longer, more drawn out shots.”
“Wanted to just swim with the manta rays all day!”
“Loved being able to interact with the planet and jump into the episode biospheres.”

We’ve been hoarding all the feedback like Smaug, chipping away at new narratives and improving the ecosphere app itself. Samuel Tate, our XR Director, has been the custodian over this new phase of the journey:

“These updates extend the current episodes with the new ecosphere: journeys content. This means new episodes for each location, where you can take a deeper dive into the landscapes to relive your favorite moments and experience never-before-seen footage.

This is the first step on an exciting long-term roadmap, where we hope to expand the VR player so you can interactively explore the gallery, choose the best video quality playback, and watch behind-the-scenes footage. Our hope is that as we add new locations, we can build a library of secondary content that you can immerse yourself in for hours on end. We want to create a place where you can explore the stories of the natural world with your friends, using hand gestures and get even more immersed in volumetric content that lets you explore the episodes deeper.”

Exploring the possibility of future seasons is a surreal position to be in. Wherever we go from here, we hope you stay with us to experience more wild places and encourage real positive change.

Our quest to discover how humanity and nature can thrive together continues!

— Team PHORIA