Virtual reality below the prehistoric waves: David Attenborough's First Life

A trip back in time at the Natural History Museum

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Deep dive

The first part of the presentation proper sets out to give an idea of the scale of evolutionary time, and I think it does a very good job. The feeling is a little like being a suspended in a well or pipe, with historical time marked along the walls. Peer down and you can see what feels like a bottomless pit as time recedes away into the distance – vertigo sufferers may want to be aware of this beforehand. You can also look left and right to see sections representing different types of life, with marks further on timeline to show when they appeared.

Along with the commentary, highlighted sections help give a good sense of just how far back things are going – and also of how little time, in evolutionary terms, we've been around for. Everything's presented in years, which is a relief for those of us who find it hard remember whether Cretaceous came before or after Jurassic.

The introduction is brief, and the bulk of the show places you under the seas of our developing planet, moving past rocks, though water and passing by some of the earliest creatures known to have lived on the planet. If you've not tried this sort of VR before, be prepared to be blown away.

By and large, you'll see all the things mentioned in the narration if you sit still and look straight ahead, but it's only when you turn your head and look around that it really becomes clear just how much effort has gone into creating an immersive experience.

NHM First Life VR Experience (cropped)

There are some impressive – and huge – creatures to be found under the sea. Photo credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Attenborough's narration draws your attention to various creatures in turn, from an early leaf-like organism tethered to the sea bed, through slugs and trilobites, snails and some that you've likely never seen before and – if it weren't for the reassurances of scientific accuracy given by the NHM – you could easily imagine to have been made up. The information, as you'd expect, is clear without patronising the participants – something many other documentary makers could learn from.

Of course, there are a couple of moments where a creature unexpectedly swims over your shoulder or lunges forwards towards you, but it doesn't feel like it's done deliberately to shock, and merely reinforces the view that you really are right there in the middle of things.

That can be a bit disconcerting at times – looking down to see the sea floor, you naturally expect to see your knees as you bend your neck, and then notice that they've become invisible and you're looking right through them.

NHM Scorpion Fossil

From fossil to VR, the exhibition brings ancient creatures back to life. Photo credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum

At fifteen minutes, the VR show is about the right length. Personally, I could have watched for longer, but I can see that some might get fidgety, and there's plenty in those fifteen minutes to enthuse young and old. At £6.50, it's reasonably priced – the bulk of the museum is free to enter, of course, but take in a few of the temporary exhibits like this, and you could end up spending a fair bit.

If you are planning a trip to the Natural History Museum this summer, it's definitely well worth adding to your list. Children under 13 aren't permitted however, and there are some health advisories on the website.

All in all, this is a great addition to the museum – and it's easy to see how other types of museum could benefit from using this technology, as long as they have a suitable space and staff to manage the visitors. For anyone with an interest in tech, it's worth trying out just for that alone. That it also brings ancient creatures to life with a narration by Sir David Attenborough is what makes this a must-see. ®

Where: Attenborough Studio, Natural History Museum, South Kensington, London
When: 19th June–24th September
Tickets: £6.50 adult, £4.50 NHM members (no under-13s).
Contact: 020 7942 5000
More info: David Attenborough's First Life


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