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The Green Planet AR

  • 5 minute read
  • Published by Lucy Woods on 13 Jan 2021
  • Last modified 13 Jan 2021
Natural history and new technology sit hand-in-hand, as the BBC pioneers broadcasting’s move into the digital age with revolutionary filming techniques and then does its bit to save the planet.

Sir David Attenborough to use 5G augmented-reality app

Sir David Attenborough is no stranger to technology. His innovation journey began back in the days of black and white television. As launch controller of BBC 2, he introduced colour TV to the UK, and he’s gone on to push the boundaries of innovation across new technologies that range from high definition to ultra-high definition and 3D virtual reality. So a 5G augmented-reality app may not sound normal to most 94-year-olds, but for Attenborough, it’s just another step in the journey.

This journey has been winning hearts and minds over to think more carefully about our place on the planet and how to effect change, and it comes at an auspicious time. At the start of 2022, the BBC and Attenborough are going to follow up Blue Planet 2 with The Green Planet, which is about the green world and the importance of protecting it. This will be a BBC landmark natural history show, which will go out on BBC One. It will begin at the start of the BBC’s centenary year, so hopefully will be a great moment for the BBC.

Green Planet AR

Introducing The Green Planet Augmented Reality app

Inspired by the programme, The Green Planet AR project will test advanced, new 5G use cases. This includes a ground-breaking The Green Planet AR app, which will be available on standard mobile phones. The consortium is led by AR company Factory 42 working in partnership with the BBC and EE. The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew will offer scientific advice to make sure that the plants are included in a scientifically accurate way. The gardens will be a 5G test site and will loan 5G equipment to visitors.

The consortium also includes Talesmith, which is an independent production company that specialises in natural history filmmaking, and Dimension Studios, which is a South London-based studio where volumetric capture can be filmed to build 3D models.

The reason why 5G is important is that it will enable Factory 42 to stream very high-resolution holographic video of Attenborough, as well as scientifically accurate digital creatures and high-resolution animations with plants, into the location where you are.

John Cassy from Factory 42 explains: “This will enable us to show off the low latency, bandwidth and coverage benefits of 5G. We’ll also try and do it in congested locations as well, so we really push the capacity of the network. And we’ll also use mobile edge compute as part of that.”

Factory 42 has worked with Attenborough before; in a project with Sky, it produced a virtual-reality app to transport the user, who put on a headset, into the Natural History Museum, where the user could have an audience with Attenborough and learn about, touch and manipulate museum specimens. If you touched these objects in real life, you and the objects would be in big trouble.

The ‘Raging Bull approach’

Mike Gunton, Executive Producer for The Green Planet and Creative Director of BBC Studios Natural History Unit, is enthusiastic about the project: “I wanted to do this because one of our drivers is innovation, trying to take new perspectives on the natural world. The most important life form on the planet is plants, and to understand that parallel universe you have to take a different narrative and visual perspective, because everything that happens in this world happens in a different timeframe.”

He explains that when you slow things down to plant-time, they do everything animals do beyond speak: “So they move and they fight and they compete, they deceive. A lot of what we’ve been trying to do is to bring that sensibility to the experience so you feel like you’re taking a plant’s eye view on life.”

Gunton is proud of the way in which The Green Planet will pioneer new techniques in time-lapse. Where once time-lapse was locked down, The Green Planet will follow the action: “We’re doing a sequence with leaf-cutter ants, harvesting leaves on a tropical plant. Through time-lapse you see the ants decimating the leaves, and the action builds with the camera tracking along that plant with the ants. They attack and move on: there’s a battle going on between the plants and the ants, of course the plants don’t want to be eaten, so the plants have mobilised defences by communicating with each other. The excitement builds as the ants try to outwit the plants with the camera tracking the action.

The technology we have developed allows us to take lots of different viewpoints of the same action. We call it the ‘Raging Bull approach’ after the 1980 Martin Scorsese movie. You’re in the ring and you’ve got De Niro’s perspective. And then you’ve got the perspective of a thing punching him in the face. Then you go outside, you look in on the ring, and that gives you this really hyper-immersive experience.” It’s an approach made for Augmented Reality.

The hope is that The Green Planet project will become international. Transmissions of the TV show will go around the world, and, as 5G permits, the consortium would like to follow.

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