Two hundred and twenty-six years ago in London, Robert Barker paused, set his brush down, and wiped the sweat off his brow. The Irish painter took a step backwards to admire his own work. One step was not enough, though. He took one more step, and another, and another.
A magnificent, hand-painted view of the majestic English capital from high atop the Albion Flour Mill was right in front of him… and on his right, on his left, behind him, and above him. His panoramic painting was a clever mix of skill, creativity, and trickery: A series of meticulously detailed illustrations of the city and its inhabitants, hung side by side inside a specially crafted circular structure to create the ultimate optical illusion. Even before people started lining up and paying to see this impressive work of art, he already knew. Success surrounded him, in more ways than one. Barker had achieved his massive, almost obsessive mission to paint “an entire view of any country or situation, as it appears to an observer turning quite round.”
Barker effectively created a colorful, virtually seamless representation of reality. A virtual reality, if you will.
(Virtual) reality bites
We often hear how history is written by the victors, but seldom ponder how it is built upon numerous failures. Virtual reality — or as we like to call it, VR — is no exception.
Cinematographer and filmmaker Morton Heilig invented the Sensorama in 1957. Resembling an arcade-style video game, the Sensorama was intended to fully immerse viewers in a specially shot film, complete with smells, sounds, and even vibrations. Due to the high cost of creating the films, however, the invention never really took off.
Other early attempts at creating true VR also proved to be ill-fated. Ivan Sutherland’s concept for a VR head-mounted display (HMD) never materialized beyond the walls of his laboratory, hampered by the technological limitations of the era. Military engineer Thomas Furness’ “Super Cockpit” flight simulator, while ahead of its time, cost “hundreds of millions” of dollars to develop.
The term “virtual reality” became well-known thanks to computer scientist Jaron Lanier in 1987. From that point on, society saw significant leaps in VR technology, from Sega’s early attempts at launching a VR headset in the 1990s to the successfully crowdfunded Oculus Rift in 2010.
Now, VR has penetrated the public consciousness to a senses-shattering degree. Fortunately, our concept of VR has come a long way from the terrifying dystopia of The Matrix. The world’s tech giants are developing their own VR headsets, in a race to reshape consumers’ reality.
Seeing VR in a different light
VR has met considerable success in the gaming industry, which is hardly surprising. After all, a fully immersive gaming experience is a difficult prospect to resist. Interestingly, today’s filmmakers have also latched on to the VR trend. Most notably, the 2016 Cannes Film Festival featured an entirely VR-dedicated exhibition, with screenings of short productions shot in VR.
Imagine, then, if filmmakers were to harness that technology for more than just mere entertainment.
The idea of using this technology for educational purposes is hardly new, even in the Philippines. Earlier this year, Philippine Airlines revealed that it has started using VR simulations for cabin crew training. News agencies such as Rappler are also taking advantage of VR to produce immersive and informative content. And now, local tech startup I Am Cardboard Philippines (IAC PH) has partnered up with the Ayala Museum to enable visitors to see history in a whole new light. In other words, to relive it, literally.
“The future of history”
Hailed as the country’s first “diorama-turned-VR” 360-degree exhibit, “Emergence of the Filipino Nation” is a ten-minute VR film directed by award-winning filmmaker Marco Biemann and fact-checked by famed historian Prof. Ambeth Ocampo. The film takes viewers through four key events in Philippine history: the Cry of Pugad Lawin, the Tejeros Convention, the trial of Andres Bonifacio, and the declaration of Philippine Independence.
By putting on IAC PH’s VR goggles, viewers find themselves at the center of each historical milestone, watching the past unfold before their very eyes. Thus, they gain a more complete learning experience, as opposed to merely reading a book or looking at a static diorama. This approach not only enhances their knowledge, but also allows them to develop a broader perspective — and hopefully, a greater understanding and appreciation for Philippine history as a whole.
“Using VR as a tool to innovate the museum experience can entice the younger generation of Filipinos to learn more about our history,” according to IAC PH CEO Ibba Bernardo. “With this innovation, we are letting them view history from a first-person perspective, making them feel that they’ve actually travelled to the past.”
VR for Pinoy science education: The reality
Aside from being a filmmaker, Biemann is also a marine biologist. Unsurprisingly, the idea of utilizing VR technology to create educational material surrounding marine science has crossed his mind. Unfortunately, numerous factors stand in the way of this idea becoming a reality.
Creating VR films requires the use of a special camera setup that covers an entire 360-degree area. Overlaps between each camera’s field of view allow the filmmaker to eliminate gaps and deliver a seamlessly connected, 360-degree view. Furthermore, each film must be shot in just a single take. Aside from the technical complexities involved in such an endeavor, these films aren’t exactly cheap to make. In other words, a director with the right vision would need to secure the necessary equipment, enough willing volunteers, and sufficient funding to make VR filmmaking for science education a viable project.
“Emergence of the Filipino Nation” is the tech startup’s second collaboration with the Ayala Museum. The first, a VR dramatization of Dr. Jose Rizal’s execution from three perspectives, was launched in 2017. Both VR productions are permanent fixtures in the museum, attesting to the effectiveness of VR as a tool for education. One can only hope that eventually, this technology can see widespread use in Philippine schools, especially as tools for teaching science.
After all, with VR technology, the possibilities for learning are only limited by one’s vision. –MF
Cover photo: I Am Cardboard Philippines/The Ayala Museum