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Human, Nature: Exploring with the VR Experience ‘In the Eyes of the Animal’

The 360° virtual presentation sends viewers on a journey that begins with a flight above the forest canopy, then drops down for intimate, face-to-face encounters with the creatures below.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This thought experiment is meant to raise questions about observation and our role in the perception of reality.

Another question one might ask: If a tree falls in a forest and two people are around to hear it, do they hear it in the same way?

And finally one more: same forest, same toppling tree, but this time it’s a person and an animal. Do their experiences match up? Is it even possible for a person to visit a forest and experience it as its native creatures do?

In most cases the answer would be no because our presence in that environment would completely change the way its animals behave, and thus we couldn’t have a truly natural experience.

Participant wearing the installation’s VR headset. Photo by Luca Marziale.

Here is where the virtual reality project In the Eyes of the Animal could change the way users engage with the wild and see it like never before. The 360° virtual presentation sends viewers on a journey that begins with a flight above the forest canopy, then drops down for intimate, face-to-face encounters with the creatures below and even embodies those animals for a truly transportative experience.

In the Eyes of the Animal was commissioned by Abandon Normal Devices and Forestry Commission England’s Forest Art Work, and produced by Abandon Normal Devices and Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF).

Set in the Grizedale Forest, an area of woodland in northwest England that is famous for its sculpture trail and its scenic beauty, this VR experience uses photogrammetry, aerial drone filming with a custom 360° camera and LiDAR and CT scanning, as well as a binaural soundtrack crafted from audio recordings of the surrounding woodland to tell a speculative short story through the eyes of the forest creatures. It is notably different from traditional nature documentaries that are filmed with high-powered lenses on distant cameras.

In the Eyes of the Animal debuted at the Abandon Normal Devices Festival in September 2015 as a physical installation in the Grizedale Forest. The installation, which includes sculptural virtual reality headsets, can still be experienced in natural environments on its current UK and international tour.

An online version of In the Eyes of the Animal, an evolution of the VR production, will be released by AND this fall, allowing audiences to enter the vibrant world of woodland creatures from the comfort of their own homes.

Rendering of a LiDAR scan of the forest

The world of In the Eyes of the Animal is still very real and alive, even if parts of it were rendered or replicated on a computer. “As technology has advanced, we’re able to deal beyond what multimedia has in the past provided as we’re now in a fully connected age,” says Robin McNicholas, MLF co-founder and creative director. “The result is that we can provide a very different perspective from the BBC natural documentaries that we grew up with, yet we can still satisfy the curiosity that comes from a child’s perspective.”

In the Eyes of the Animal is able to go further than most animal documentaries as it has blended VR and augmented reality, yet stayed true to the spirit of those aforementioned nature programs, giving the viewer an experience in which the film crew’s presence didn’t disturb the behaviors of the animals.

“What we found in this project is that there is a serenity that comes from the lack of human contact,” adds McNicholas. “It isn’t just seeing the animals, but seeing from their eyes, and in this way it is almost like ‘quantum leaping’ into these animals.”

It is true that the scanning of the forest that took place during production did impact the environment, but the production team was careful to create as little a disruption as possible. Even this brief interaction caused some forest creatures to scatter, McNicolas notes, but in the end result, the viewer does not experience a disturbance. Instead, audiences are dropped into an environment that is largely as it would be without any human presence.

“This puts the viewer into a unique perspective, and that is what is wonderful about VR,” says McNicholas. “This leap in technology that we used isn’t just coming from filmmakers. It is coming from traditional photographers, graphic designers and even architects, all who are learning to utilize this new technology.”

Drone On, Soundscapes

Many of the overhead shots were filmed with small drones, allowing the filmmakers to capture shots that previously could only have been achieved with helicopter-mounted cameras. In this production, drones allowed a bird’s-eye perspective on a much smaller budget.

“This level of immersion really excites us from an artistic standpoint,” says McNicholas. “We were able to create an environment that is largely untouched, so it would be as the animals experience it.”

The other key to the immersion is that the presentation doesn’t feature a rousing musical soundtrack, another notable break from the traditional nature film and documentary. Instead of cute musical cues, the creators opted to allow the environment to offer its own robust soundtrack. In the Eyes of the Animal features the music of the forest played by its native creatures.

“Honestly, it was premeditated, but in the end it was a perfect choice,” adds McNicholas. “We observed the medium, but we also worked with a sound designer who spent a lot of time in the forest, and that is how the soundscape evolved. The result is a non-generic sound experience that captures the moment. It is also important to note that this project allows you to feel the creatures through the sound.”

Getting the right audio mix presented its own challenges, but delivering the sounds of nature was accomplished through the use of SubPac, an immersing audio device that transmits low-level audio frequencies so that audio is felt as much as heard.

Seeing as the Animals

Another distinction of this project is that the viewer doesn’t merely see the creatures in the forest; audiences are offered a perspective that lets them perceive the forest as the animals do, which the project’s creators hope will change the way people look at natural environments. The ability to “leap” into the animals and then practically feel their breathing offers a unique perspective on the Grizedale Forest, and the production team believes this blending of technology could pave the way for even more immersive experiences.

“We see that In the Eyes of the Animal provides an opportunity for people to take in the perspective of the creatures that live in the forest,” says McNicholas. “It is part of the larger process that we think can bring more interactive elements to future projects.”   

Watch the trailer and a behind-the-scenes video below.

In the Eyes of the Animals Trailer from Abandon Normal Devices on Vimeo.

In the Eyes of the Animal: Into the Forest (Behind the scenes part 1) from Abandon Normal Devices on Vimeo.