Review: First Life at the Natural History Museum

First Life at the Natural History Museum

“Please, please keep your hands on your lap,” our guide begs us. “You may want to reach out and touch some of the animals, but they’re not there and you can’t, I promise you. And we’d hate for you to inappropriately touch your neighbour.” This isn’t how most museum exhibits begin, but at the Natural History Museum’s first ever virtual reality installation “First Life”, it is important to brief viewers on what will be a completely new experience for most of them.

For this film (if that’s even the right word), the Natural History Museum has worked with a virtual reality specialist to create a 15 minute immersive experience based on the earliest forms of life.

First Life at the Natural History Museum

After a brief introductory talk and focusing session (in which you adjust your Gear VR headset to optimise the sharpness of the image) the film begins, with Sir David Attenborough’s peerless voiceover to guide you through the earliest stages of life on earth.

At first you find yourself in the middle of a 360-degree, wrap around infographic – a sort of wormhole through time that chronicles the development of life as we currently know it, but also allows you to peer down into the depths of history to see what has come before. After the timeline of the film has been established, you are sent back 550 million years and submerged into the Cambrian oceans.

Over the next 15 minutes you’ll come face to face with the first single celled organisms, and watch as they become multi-celled life forms, then primitive plants, and finally Earth’s first animals. Our ancestral highlights include opabinia (an early arthropod with five eyes and a giant snout), hallucigenia (a heavily spiked seaworm) and two and a half meter sea scorpions which are, mercifully, now extinct. All of the CGI creations were created in collaboration with the Natural History Museum and based on their existing fossil archives, ensuring maximum authenticity and scientific accuracy.

The playback on the headsets is smooth and responsive, an extremely important quality as a lag between head movement and image response is known to cause nausea. The general pace of the film is quite slow, giving viewers plenty of time to look around and explore each of the available 360 degrees. The subject matter is not as obviously exciting as something like Walking with Dinosaurs, but the slick CGI and expert voiceover provide an engaging, memorable and informative experience. Most tellingly, after the film was over I felt like I could have quite happily watched for another half an hour or so, which is the measure of any exhibition.

First Life at the Natural History Museum

There is no doubt that VR can provide a unique experience that goes well beyond anything that can be viewed in a cinema or IMAX, and through projects such as First Life, museums can create immersive CGI worlds that audiences are completely unable to experience any other way. However, with the availability of home viewing products such as Google Cardboard, and Oculus Rift coming on the market in early 2016, it’s difficult to predict whether the future of VR will be in specialist spaces such as national museums, or in the comfort of your own home. But, however the technology evolves, for the time being, Natural History Museum is on to a winner with First Life.

By James Rawson, Assistant Producer, Centre Screen London

Images and trailer courtesy of the Natural History Museum