Virtual Reality in Antarctica

Two small boats with the Sorsdal Glacier in the background and a drone flying above the glacier.
Dean (in the black boat) flies the Matrice 600 pro drone over the Sørsdal Glacier. (Photo: Wendy Pyper)
Phil Harper (left) and Briege Whitehead (centre) talk about station activities with Station Leader Robb Clifton, prior to filming. Wilson (wearing a protective lens sleeve) looks on.  Dean prepares the Matrice 600 pro drone (‘The Kraken’) for a flight, with Wilson attached by a gimbal. Yellow foam on the drone's legs aims to keep the drone afloat if the worst happens.  Phil Harper discusses the script for a scene on the Sørsdal Glacier with glaciologist Sarah Thompson, from the University of Swansea in the UK.

Maintaining eye contact with Wilson and treating him like any other Antarctic expeditioner is a challenge. He doesn’t interact, he has no personality, and his six all-seeing eyes can be a little off-putting.

The ball-shaped 360 degree virtual reality camera on a tripod – named after the Wilson-branded volleyball that featured in the movie Cast Away – also needs to be the centre of attention.

Wilson is part of a team led by natural history filmmaker Briege Whitehead, who visited Australia’s Davis research station for 10 days in February, to film the first virtual reality documentary about Antarctica.

The Antarctica Experience aims to take viewers on an immersive journey into the life of a small Antarctic community, the scientific research being undertaken, and the stunning landscapes and wildlife. Threading through the different facets of the experience is a message about climate change.

“I’ve always been interested in showing how important Antarctic research is to understanding climate change and how it will impact the planet,” Briege said.

“Virtual reality provides a new and exciting way to do this. When viewers wear a special 3D, surround-sound head set, they will be transported into the heart of the action, to experience the Antarctic landscape, and hear and see Australian scientists as if they were actually standing with them on the ice.”

To achieve her vision Briege (who owns White Spark Pictures) teamed up with UK-based director and producer Phil Harper, who previously worked on David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef VR Dive. Together the pair scripted and directed each story chapter and used Wilson to capture the experience.

“Wilson is the eyes and ears of future virtual expeditioners, so the people we’re filming need to talk directly to him, as if he is a person,” Briege said.

“The six individual cameras on his ‘head’ record vision and sound all the way around. So when you put on a head set, if a penguin squawks behind you, you can turn around and see it.”

To complement the vision on the ground, Briege secured the skills of Western Australian drone pilot Dean Chisholm. Dean used a DJI Matrice 600 pro drone to carry Wilson above and around icebergs, glaciers and Davis station, providing viewers with a spectacular and rarely-seen vantage. A smaller Phantom drone captured similar footage that will be used for interactive maps, virtual tours and 2D videos, both within and separate to the virtual reality film. Both drones were operated according to the Australian Antarctic Division’s environmental permit and CASA certified procedures.

“I don’t fly over concentrations of wildlife, I always have an emergency landing point and I never lose visual contact with the drones,” Dean said.

I was lucky enough to join the film crew, as they worked with the Davis station team to capture the sights and sounds of Antarctica by foot, boat and helicopter.

One of the first challenges was unloading and unpacking 158 kilograms of filming and technical equipment, and assembling it all. The next was lugging gear and survival packs to a range of locations, all while kitted out in full Antarctic survival clothing.

Among our first outings was a visit to a penguin colony with seabird ecologist Dr Louise Emmerson. We travelled in two boats, with Wilson taking prime position in the centre of one of the boats, as Louise talked about the biology of the birds and the impact climate change may have on them and their ecosystem.

Field Training Officer and coxswain, Marty Benevente, then dropped Louise, Phil, Briege and Wilson on an island, to conduct an interview overlooking one of the colonies Louise has been studying using remotely operated cameras. Later in the day, Dean launched Wilson on his large 30 kilogram drone (nicknamed ‘The Kraken’), from an unpopulated island, and followed Louise, Briege and Phil in their boat as they navigated around icebergs and bergy bits.

We returned to the water a few days later to fly The Kraken across the face of the Sørsdal Glacier, to provide a dramatic backdrop to glaciologist Sarah Thompson’s research. Sarah is part of a team monitoring the formation of lakes on the outlet glacier’s surface over the past few years, to see if the drainage of meltwater has any effect on how fast the glacier slides over the bedrock below (Australian Antarctic Magazine 33: 12-13, 2017).

To capture the visual spectacle, Dean needed to launch The Kraken from two plastic tubs positioned at the front of the four-metre long boat, while Marty maintained position in the sea-sick inducing swell.

Dean expertly piloted the 1.5 metre wingspan drone away from the boat and above the glacier, monitoring what Wilson was seeing in real time using a GoPro attached to the drone. After 20 minutes of flying he guided The Kraken back to the boat, where he kept it hovering until he was able to catch it. Later, as we reviewed some of the footage, we were awed by towers of blue glacial ice and the cracks, crevasses and caverns that would be impossible to view any other way.

Wilson and the film crew also visited an elephant seal wallow with field biologists, helicoptered to the Sørsdal Glacier research site, took a station tour with the Station Leader, learnt about krill research, and looked at ice cores retrieved from Mount Brown during a 70-plus day drilling project (Australian Antarctic Magazine 33: 31, 2017).

The Antarctica experience was funded by Screen Australia, Screen West and Lottery West. It will premier in September at the Western Australian Museum, before international distribution. The virtual reality experience will also be available on major hardware platforms such as Oculus, and at the Australian Antarctic Division.

One of the first things viewers will see is a drone’s-eye view of Station Leader Robb Clifton, standing out the front of the station exclaiming “Welcome to Antarctica!”

We certainly experienced a warm welcome. Now hundreds of thousands more can experience it too.

Wendy Pyper
Australian Antarctic Division

The film crew travelled to Davis as part of the Australian Antarctic Division’s Media Program.