Bringing History To Life

An Application of 360 VR in Historical Studies


In the past historical documentation has relied heavily on outdated sources i.e., retro footage, drawings, or artifacts. While helpful, these things do not paint as vivid a picture of the past as is possible. This is where I believe the technology we have studied in this class can come in handy in the historical documentation field.

My hypothesis is that by using 360 drone footage to immerse viewers in the actual landscapes they study, they will have a better understanding of the events that took place there.

Technology Used:

  • 3DR Drone with dual Kodak 360 4k camera
    Use to media: Provides aerial 360 video at very high quality. Can be used to understand virtually an environment from the sky in any direction if it is rendered and shot correctly.
  • PixPro Stitching software. Used to stitch together 360 videos in post production.
    Use to media: Gives editor a chance to make 360 videos coherent. Prevents technological disruption.
  • Premiere Pro CC 2017. Utilized latest versions with VR editing modes.
    Use to media: Most popular and powerful video editing software available. Used in practically every market where video production is required.
  • Viar360. Beta website used to turn 360 content into engaging stills a videos with added infographics.
    Use to media: Turns VR footage into a coherent story by stringing shots together into a movable timetable and providing infographics.

Hypothesis Details:

I am lucky enough to be stationed in one of the most historically rich areas in the modern world, southern Belgium. This area saw the Napoleonic wars, the 100 Years War, WW1 and WW2. We decided to cross the French border into the city of Maubeuge where one of the largest sieges in WW1 took place. There were plenty of sites to see in the heart of the city that would have been great footage as well, however, French law prohibits drone operations in cities or densely populated areas. The war cemetery of Maubeuge served as a nice alternative.

Our target audience is fairly vast. This includes historians, reporters, journalists, professors, or anyone else who has a need/desire to gather vast 360 footage of historical sites. This can even range to hobbyists who simply find the footage captivating.

Field Test:

As stated, we decided on the nearby historic city of Maubeuge. The cemetery was far enough outside of the city to where we weren’t going to get arrested for breaking drone laws, but relevant enough to where we could get captivating video of a historically relevant area.

We took the drone to the exact tree line where the siege was held, though it’s just a tree line, it was relevant so we gave it a try. However, we learned that when flying the drove very quickly, the video tends to be warped. It didn’t help that the reporters whom I borrowed the drone from had only used it once and were not entirely sure on how to run it seamlessly. This rendered a result where the cameras we warped from speed and the ground did not always match the sky. Quite frustrating. However, we still wanted this shot. I did not end up using it because it was not captivating enough video. Plus, the landmarks that were needed to make the site relevant were distorted or hard to make out because of the camera issues.

We decided to go for an even more historic and visually appealing site, the famous war cemetery. The graves here were captivating. Shrines for the family lineage of men killed in the wars dominated the scene. Entire sections designated for children killed in their town during the conflict made for an enthralling subject matter. What we attempted to do was take the drone and fly it parallel to the children’s graves then arch upwards into the aerial shot. We achieved this, but the video didn’t quite turn out the way I had hoped. The horizon between the 2 cameras cut off half of the graves. This was a bit of a resounding theme while working with these Kodak 4k cameras. I was informed later by the owner that he forgot to calibrate the cameras before he started shooting. This would explain why when I pulled the footage into PixPro it didn’t match at all and I had to go in and calibrate it frame by frame.

What we did end up getting were some very engaging aerial shots from above the cemetery at sunset. These shots do a great job of showing the landscape where the battle took place, and the cemetery below. This was the primary footage I used to show my respondents, as well as a 360 still I took from the eye-level cemetery shots.

All of my subjects were either reporters, journalists, or local historians. I had them look at the footage and asked them a series of questions about it. These questions included:

1) Taking into account that the video for this project is about historical site documentation, do you feel that having this type of dynamic view is valuable in any way to better understanding the setting?

2) Which technological aspects did you feel hindered the experience?

3) How might you use this type of technology in your field?

4) As a user, what did you find yourself paying attention to most in these images?

5) Will you ever use 360 video/drones in an upcoming story such as this? Is so, how?

Instead of spelling out every single response, I would like to highlight the key responses that, to me, made the biggest impact on how this technology will affect the future of this technology in the field.

First off, 100% of respondents thought that this type of engaging footage would greatly aid the experience of viewers in their field. This means that history buffs, people who just want news, and journalists alike would generally all benefit from having 360 aerial shots of historic sites. They all mentioned that this gives a unique perspective that they would benefit their storytelling. However, Andrew Carroll, a local historian made a great point. He said, most of the people who engage in his WW1 and WW2 material are older people who do not have the RAM, internet, or VR capabilities to really engage in this. He fears that if his market is saturated with too much technology like this that it will actually turn his viewers off. If (in his demographic’s case) the technology far surpasses the capabilities of the average viewer, it may be doing more harm than good.

They all agreed though that if this technology can become more accessible to the average home computer user that this will be a force for good as far as better explaining history. Right now the hard part is justifying using it when still majority of media and history users do not have the means/want to view VR video. We in the VR community know this is a shame because it is highly engaging. However, as with any technology advance, it will simply take time. Once the market settles for the average user, they all are in agreement that they will invest in VR.

Virtually all respondents said they were most captivated by the widespread view and how the battlefield was clear in a way that it have never been before. There were no complaints when it came to content. All enjoyed what they were seeing, and they found it relevant. However, there were technical aspects that they noticed which were perhaps the most frustrating throughout the field test.

The first thing they all seem to have noticed (though only a few of them said they were distracted by) was the horizon that was created by the differentiating cameras. The Kodak 360 4k cameras, while great quality, need very specific specs to record in sync. This equipment was used from a local new station who, they admit, were still new to using it themselves. While most of the footage looks very good, in much of it there is a very distinct line between the top and bottom camera. This creates a horizon which seems to warp. Though they all knew what they were seeing was a beta test and minor tech issues could be easily forgiven, each of them made a point to let us know that that was indeed distracting.

The horizon created by the 2 cameras also ruined many of the best shots in the cemetery. Some of the most important graves were cut off by the horizon. While this is not vital, it is a huge learning lesson. A lesson for the camera owners to make sure they calibrate their cameras properly, and a lesson for myself and other producers on what to look out for in the future. Even as a seasoned producer I have not dealt with drones much and as with any camera/new shooting ceremony; something will always go unexpectedly. In this field test, this was that instance.

While not everything went to plan, that is the essence of a field test. What’s reassuring is the fact that virtually all respondents said this technology will help the historical storytelling aspect of their field. However, the consensus was that it will not be helpful immediately. If it is at all helpful in the present, it’s for a small corner of their market. There is no doubt though that this technology will become an ever-emerging presence in not only the way historical documentation takes place, but all storytelling documentation in the future.

So, How Effective Was It?

After reviewing the tangible use of 360 VR drone footage in the field and testing respondent experts in their historical field, I would say that at the current moment it is just useful. Not extremely useful, and not useless. It’s not useless because there will always be a certain level of intrigue when it comes to stories with shots like this. They’re immersive, controllable, and somewhat mystic in nature. Enough people use VR or have an interest in it to not render it useless in this application. However, as stated, it is not extremely useful either. The lack of accessibility of this technology, especially by the demographics of people who deeply research history (according to Andrew Carroll) makes this something that has a lot of building to do in certain communities. In time, 360 VR will get there, but it just isn’t yet.

As of right now, this is something a producer should have in their tool kit, but not lean on too much. You’ll get some compelling footage, but too much is overkill. Use it to drive a point or get an atmospheric feel across; but past that; I’m afraid that’s about as far as I see this tool going in to current historical market.

Moving Forward…

The future of drone 360 VR is bright, it’s just in it’s infancy. This field test certainly proved that the potential is there, but it simply is not developed enough for non-producers/tech-savvy people to invest in. In the future, I can see this actually getting very intricate in historical documentation. I imagine (when drones get so precise at controlling themselves that there is almost no risk of crashing) that historians will send drones into extreme places. For instance, historic caverns or temples that perhaps even a human body can’t fit through…send a drone.

There will likely come a time too when A) the batteries do not die as quickly (even this brand new drone could not fly for more than 10 minutes fully charged) and B) the range will be greatly increased. Imagine if you could send a drone into a cavern and go get a coffee then come back and it’s finally finished. A drone which is so dependable and fail-safe that it basically does all of the documentation work for you; that is where I see the future going. I hope it does.

There will be naysayers who feel that this is ruining videographer’s jobs or that it is lazy documentation but as technology advances doesn’t everything get more lazy? It’s that essentially what majority of technology is; a way to make things more efficient/easier for the user? Like it or not, it’s going to stay; and surely get more advanced. Historical documentation will not be the only field affected, I foresee virtually every field that requires production being affected. 360 VR drones are one more example of how emerging technologies are going to shape the way we tell the stories of tomorrow, and the journalists/producers who embrace it and help it grow will forever be at the cutting edge of their markets.

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