As technology blurs the boundaries between film, games, and live event production, it’s rapidly becoming possible to combine physical and digital worlds, engaging audiences and immersing them in new experiences. That is our mission at Factory 42 – to create experiences that matter and to use immersive technologies to tell stories in new ways.
With that in mind, as part of a team meeting, we came up with the idea for an environmental-themed experience. How could we bring users into the heart of the natural world in memorable and meaningful ways? That idea became the basis for The Green Planet AR Experience, inspired by the BBC’s extraordinary blue-chip Natural History series.
With buy-in from one of the world’s leading natural world broadcasters, Sir David Attenborough, we set about creating an experience that would literally put nature at people’s fingertips, as they toured our green planet, guided by Attenborough himself.
So we formed a group of like-minded companies, including BBC Studios, mobile network firm EE, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, wildlife filmmakers Talesmith and holographic video gurus Dimension Studio, and were awarded one of the UK’s largest innovation grants for 5G research and development. This collaborative approach meant we had leading experts in all fields. We now had to turn that into something special.
And the result? More than 10,000 individuals attended the experience, which was held at Regent Street in London during February and March. Moreover, research company StoryFutures tracked a 96 percent approval rating for the experience – the highest enjoyment ranking ever measured for an immersive experience.
The firm also revealed that 91.98 percent of visitors were completely captivated by the experience, 88.20 percent had the sense of actually being present in the experience, 81.04 percent said the world felt real, and 83 percent of respondents felt a sense of wonder.
So how did we get to this point? Firstly, our team. As specialists in high-quality and pioneering XR experiences, we have previously worked with the Royal Academy of Arts, the Almeida Theatre, London’s Natural History Museum, and the English National Ballet. Based in London, the team is made up of software developers, artists, producers, academics, researchers, writers, and directors. By forming a partnership with other leading experts, we had the creative and technical know-how, and impetus, to push forward.
Through specialists Talesmith and Dimension we were able to capture Sir David Attenborough in 4k volumetric capture video. He became a personal 3D hologram guide for each and every visitor. With Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, we were able to ensure that every digital plant was scientifically accurate. The BBC allowed us to reimagine their stand-out series as an immersive AR experience blending physical and digital.
This transformed the audience’s role from traditional passive viewers to engaged and immersed participants. EE was our lead technology partner. And finally, Attenborough’s voice was the authority needed to lead visitors through the experience, gently guiding them to look up, around, behind, touch, and interact.
Much of what was achieved technically was totally new. But rather than overloading on the technical side and losing the beauty and magic of our natural world, we prioritized both. Our venue – essentially a white box in a building at London’s Piccadilly Circus – was transformed into an art gallery with beautiful scenes.
We brought in hundreds of real plants (all kept alive and returned afterward). The entire experience was created with a sustainable mindset, adhering to strict criteria and setting a new benchmark in the experiential industry. After all, how could we present an experience that reveres the natural world if we don’t respect it ourselves?
Beyond the team, the technology was a critical participant in the endeavor. We used a variety of technologies to parlay the power of the private 5G network that EE provided. The experience ran in real-time through the Unity game engine’s Universal Render Pipeline, with procedurally generated digital plants and environments. Sir David Attenborough appeared as 4K volumetric video throughout the experience via Microsoft’s HoloVideo software.
Nvidia’s CloudXR enabled edge rendering of the AR content while industrial-grade Nvidia GPUs delivered it to each 5G-connected Samsung S21 handset. Google’s Cloud Anchors were used to accurately map the digital content into the physical spaces, adding a dash of magic. This included Google’s MediaPipe TensorFlow hand-tracking technology that enabled a digital butterfly to land on each visitor’s hand.
In addition to the butterflies, there were 400,000 individual blades of seagrass that reacted to visitors’ presence, as they were encouraged to move and disturb them. This revealed a visceral environmental message about the plastic waste in our oceans. There was also water that rippled, smoke and fire, birds and bobcats, to name just a few additional elements.
Ease of use and ergonomics were also important to engender inclusivity – from grandparents to children. Visitors were quickly able to use smartphones – a familiar form factor – as an exploratory and dynamic tool to get up close and personal with digital elements. The quality of content provided an additional dose of realism while cloud anchors enabled interaction among multiple visitors, making it a shared experience.
One thing that all the above revealed is that there’s creative and commercial opportunity to engage audiences through purpose-driven experiences. And its highly-visceral nature caused The Green Planet AR Experience to have lasting impact on visitors’ sentiments and behaviors.
For example, they came for many reasons: To try out 5G. To learn about the planet. To do something fun. To experience the TV show in a new way. But they all left with similar intents: To spend more time outdoors. To recycle more often. And to visit galleries and cultural exhibitions.
In fact, 99 percent of visitors left with high environmental-sustainability interest. A month after their visit, follow-up interviews indicated they were still positively changing their behavior to be more sustainable. That includes buying environmentally-friendly products, using energy-efficient systems, and donating money to environmental campaigns.
Our research also indicated the advantage of interactive and immersive learning. It showed that visitors had retained observations to memory one month after attending. Furthermore, the questions that received the most correct answers were in relation to the most highly-interactive aspects of the experience. And the words they used most to describe it were ‘informative’, ‘educational’, ‘fun’, and ‘interesting’. Imagine if we could harness these results in our educational systems.
As the metaverse is predicted by Gartner to be the digital space where a quarter of the world’s population will spend at least an hour a day, it’s an emerging destination that can’t be ignored. Curiosity, joy, wonder, and calmness were the strongest emotions on leaving our digitally created destination.
With a 96 percent enjoyment rating, our respondents let us know we had achieved what we had set out to do: create an experience that mattered. It took us two years, and lots of hard work. But it’s something we, and our visitors, will remember for a long time.
John Cassy is founder & CEO of immersive entertainment and storytelling studio, Factory 42.