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Navigating Chernobyl in VR is tricky business

You may never travel to the site of the largest nuclear accident, but you can virtually visit.
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A yellow Ferris wheel looms over an abandoned amusement park. A rusty red frame alludes to a carousel that was once on the ground. Decaying bumper cars stand motionless behind fading fences. Sights that evoke a sense of child-like exhilaration have become tragic symbols of the Chernobyl disaster, the largest nuclear accident in history. The decomposing rides and crumbling buildings of Pripyat, the nearest city that was evacuated and turned into a ghost town within days of the explosion at the nuclear power plant, have been documented in hundreds of touristy photographs and amateur video tours. Now a virtual reality documentary wants to bring viewers up, close and personal for an immersive experience of the radioactive region in Northern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government first announced its controversial decision to open the "Zone of Alienation," an 18-mile radius surrounding the nuclear power plant, for tourists in 2011. Despite the spike in this rare kind of post-apocalyptic tourism, Chernobyl and Pripyat continue to spark a sense of intrigue, doom and fear. The Farm 51, a Polish game production company, wants to demystify and document the Chernobyl Exclusion Area through virtual reality. A 10-member crew has spent the last year scanning and shooting the site. They're using a mix of photogrammetry and stereoscopic, 360-degree videos to build an immersive experience that captures the abandoned city for people who can't or don't want to visit one of the most contaminated sites in the world.

I caught up with Wojciech Pazdur, creative director of the game studio, for insight into the Chernobyl VR Project that is scheduled for release on the 30th anniversary of the accident in April next year.

What made you pick Chernobyl for your first VR documentary?

VR is about taking you to places where you've never been or where you can't go in your life. So we figured we should travel and we came up with a list of places [including] Egypt and Mayan pyramids. That was ok, but in the end, you can go to those places. Chernobyl is a bit trickier. You can go there but it's more complicated to get permissions and it's not so comfortable to get there. It's also a place that people are scared of. Since my childhood, I wanted to see the first post-apocalyptic world that exists in the real scenario. It's also a gamer's dream to visit that world – a world that is dangerous and somehow threatens us.

We also wanted to visit the place to document it, which I believe is the [other] mission of VR. Chernobyl is decaying. Sooner or later it won't be available. The buildings will collapse or be deconstructed. We truly believe it is a great moment to make a documentary of it. People are afraid of the radiation and war that is happening there. For most people, even if it's physically possible, they will probably never go there. So it became a no-brainer for us.

What is it about VR that made it an appropriate medium for this experience?

We wanted to make VR applications other than games, something that [touches] those people who don't play games. So far, VR is a subject of interest for all the gamers, but VR application actually works better outside of the gaming industry. We're doing VR for business, medicine, military, education and so on. So we found out that if you want to go to the public with VR, you should show something that isn't actually a game.

Besides [making] the experience in VR, we are also strongly working on content creation techniques, especially 3D scanning, [including] laser scanning and photogrammetry techniques to create the virtual world. Because of some of the technical parameters, destroyed and decomposed environments are the best-case scenarios for scanning. They have a lot of detail and elements that are hard to reconstruct in other ways. It's hard to create post-apocalyptic environment just with 3D models created by graphics. That's another reason we went there. For example, if we compare the Egyptian pyramids, it's easier to reconstruct pyramids with regular 3D graphics, but it would be very hard to create Chernobyl with regular graphics because it's much more detailed and organic.

You've been to Chernobyl a couple of times this year with special permissions reserved for researchers. What was the process of shooting a VR experience in an Exclusion Zone?

You need to know what you can and cannot do in the restricted zone because there are safety protocols. For example, you cannot eat anything there, not drink anything. You don't sit on the ground and don't touch the trees -- things that protect you from radiation. There are no hotels or restaurants and no roads. So it's not a comfortable trip. You need to go with Ukrainian tour guides. There is military control so things have to be set up officially.

That's for regular tourists. But if you want to do a bit more, bring special equipment like drones, special cameras, or a generator (because there's no electricity there), it can take a couple of months to get permissions from the government and military guards. It's especially hard to drive drones and make recordings. You need to pay for it and contact the officials. There are people who assist filming or scientific crews. We've been entering the restricted zone as a research group because we're categorized as a documentary so it was a bit easier to get permission and we were able to get access to some places that are normally not open to tourists. For example, most of the tourists visit Pripyat. But there are a couple of industrial structures like the reactors of the Chernobyl nuclear plant that are totally closed. We've been allowed to go in for scanning and photographs.

You've used a few different shooting and scanning techniques to build this experience. Why did you need to rely on different methods?

We are using 3D models and real-time graphics for exploring the interactive parts of the application where we want the user or player to be able to walk wherever he wants. And we are using 360-movies for the non-interactive parts.

Most of our [3D model] work is based on photogrammetry. With the help of sophisticated computational algorithms we can measure and recreate 3D textures based on photos. It's like laser scanning but it uses pixel samples instead of laser samples.

We also used stereoscopic shooting for recording 360 movies. This is a part of the application because we couldn't use 3D models for parts of the city. Grass and trees are hard to scan and turn into 3D models through photogrammetry or laser scanning. So for those parts we record 360 movies.

Audio is an integral part of any VR experience. What will you be using for audio?

We've been experimenting with different approaches, [but] we haven't figured out what will be the best yet. There are a couple of possibilities. The first is let's simply record ambient sound and play them in 3D to give the feeling that you're there. But the problem is this place is very quiet. When you're there, the silence makes a very strong impression. There are no insects, no birds singing, so it's part of the experience there.

But when we're making this application, the silence is just silent. We'll probably contrast parts of the silence with some artificial ambient sounds or even some music. It'll be related to the place itself. Maybe even an echo of somebody talking to you.

The trailer gives a sneak peek at the documentary-style storytelling, but it also mentions "surprise" elements. Are there interactive components in this experience?

A virtual reality tour, as we see it, is different from a 360-movie [because] it can be interactive. We believe that VR is the way to make the world you're seeing more immersive, so you feel like you're a part of it. In my experience of designing games, I've seen that a player or user should be involved in doing something. If he's just a witness, it will feel like watching a documentary on TV, but just a bit better looking. That's not what we wanted. We want the user to be involved.

We're using our game engine to create this application. The mechanism that's being used is the same. So there will be simple tasks that you're supposed to do, like checking the radiation level to achieve some goal. Everything you'll need to do will be like you're there. In the VR experience, we create something that involves you in the process so you'll be pushed to look for an object or an open road to go to the next stage, but it's not a very demanding goal. It won't be complicated, no combat challenges but something that makes you think about what you're doing there.

But do you think the tasks and interactivity will take away from the history, and perhaps even the tragedy in some ways?

Honestly, we [are] confused about this and we may even screw it up. The [problem is] there's no reference to do this stuff. When we're making a game, we can check how the controls have been made, how the graphics have been done or how the narrative is built. For this, there's no proven level of interactivity or storytelling that will form a proper balance. So we're experimenting. I'm still a bit worried about how it ends. But I would say it's a documentary with some elements that get you a little involved. If it's about balance, about 70 or 80 percent is about telling the story of Chernobyl and the rest is about doing something there. I don't believe it's ruining the seriousness of it.

What would you say is your biggest challenge in creating the content?

The biggest issue is to blend stereoscopic 3D movie with interactive 3D environments. This is still not fully resolved with the tools and the engines we have. The idea of this application is that some parts are completely interactive and you can go anywhere within a range, but parts where you travel from one place to another, that's being played with stereoscopic movie. But the biggest issue is how to make a smooth transition between one and the other and not have the feeling of playing two different applications. We haven't decided on whether to make the transition seamless or emphasize the contrast between the two.

"I would say it's a documentary with some elements that get you a little involved. If it's about balance, about 70 or 80 percent is about telling the story of Chernobyl and the rest is about doing something there. I don't believe it's ruining the seriousness of it," says Pazdur.

The experience will be available on multiple VR devices like Oculus, Samsung Gear, HTC Vive and more. How do you build an experience that's ready for all the different devices?

It's not the hardest question on the technology side. But, the biggest issue is that we don't know what the standard will be for these devices. It's not a problem to incorporate the control system but the challenge is not knowing what control system will be dominant in the market. Of course we have the dev kits of Vive, Oculus and Morpheus (or PlayStation VR, as it's now called), but the only fully available device is the mobile VR system. We're actively looking at the market because this is the biggest issue.

We would like to make this application multi-platform with 3D interactive graphics and 360 movies. For mobile devices, this application will have mostly stereoscopic 360 movies and some interactive parts because there's not enough memory or computational power for heavy detailed graphics. But for devices like Vive or Oculus, there will be much more interactivity and detail in graphics.

You come from the gaming world, where you create fantastical worlds and things that don't exist. But the world of documentary is completely different and the emphasis is on keeping the truth intact. How do you switch between those sensibilities?

Strictly from an application creation point of view, this is like a game without the game playing. We're not creating the artificiality for it or the complicated system of rewarding and challenging the player. The narrative is different and we're already using the help of [documentarians]. We don't feel [confident] about telling documentary stories and we believe it's important to take care of that part. But, as for the technology, we're using [it] in a way that nobody has used before.

What do you hope for the viewers to take away from the Chernobyl VR Project?

The closest reference of what we want to achieve is the actual experience of being in Chernobyl. It's proof of what this disaster was and what it became for this country and [why it's creepy] for mankind. You can talk about the history and be serious, but the first thing that [strikes] you about the place is that it's creepy. It's not about creepy being cool. It's about being scared, intrigued and sad that it happened in real life. People would like to witness the scariness of this place. It's a lot touchier than imaginary environments that are made for video games.

We want to achieve the sadness of the place – the empty flats, the toys, the books and the amusement park. When you [see that], you know there were people there, but then, because of one event, they were all gone. I believe people are afraid of that, too. All catastrophic movies are based on that, but this is something that really happened. The reference [for the interaction] is that when you go there, you get a guide who tells you here's the school, the amusement park, look at the gas masks; why a floor is flooded and a wall is broken. I would like to make [the application] less boring than visiting a typical museum where everything is behind the glass and you're told you cannot touch this. Chernobyl is a place where you can go up close to things. We want to create that feeling for the audience.

Image credit: The Farm 51
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