In recent years, the idea of virtual reality has become just that, a reality. But with the popularity of VR headsets expected to soar, what are public service broadcasters doing to keep pace and produce content for this emerging format?

Last year saw the introduction of the first generation of VR headsets, offering anyone (at a price) the opportunity to explore 360-degree games, videos and virtual worlds with a tilt of the head.

This immersive experience opens all sorts of possibilities for content producers, allowing them to move away from linear TV storytelling to one where the audience can gain greater context by visually exploring that which is typically out of view. Moreover, VR content is now supported via Youtube and Facebook, amongst others.

With mass market VR in its early stages, a number of PSBs have made short beta or “taster” content to explore its potential in fulfilling the PSB mandate – to inform, educate and entertain.


In the US, the Public Broadcasting Service’s (PBS) Digital Studios have produced a ground-breaking 360° VR experience that tells the story of two brothers fighting on opposite sides of the American Civil War. Debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, My Brother’s Keeper gives viewers an intensely personal, fully immersive and 3D stereoscopic experience of one of the Civil War’s deadliest battles.

According to a PBS press release, the production of the nine-minute film allowed the studio to experiment with a range of new filming techniques, including the “first use of true slow motion, shot at 120 frames per second (fps) [and] new 180° framing techniques”. The slow motion has been praised for its realism and innovation, which was achieved despite the higher fps required to give VR viewers “the feeling of presence”.

Despite its short length, the film demonstrates the complex production and editing procedures required for quality VR content. Unlike conventional filming, there is no “fourth wall” for the production team to hide behind as the camera films in 360°.

[Video: Behind the Scenes: PBS Digital Studios/Youtube]

In an interview with Engadget, Producer Dan Wilcox explained how the production team hid behind objects on set while actors had to be doubly mindful of their performances, due to never being out of shot while the camera rolled. Wilcox also explained the lengthy editing process behind VR: “Camera rigs must be painted out, visual effects have to be rendered multiple times to fill the surround format and stitching together the different camera views takes skill and precision”.


Elsewhere, the BBC has also been experimenting with VR content. For the past two years their Research & Development department has been investigating the potential for VR technology in public broadcasting; from journalism and children’s programming to developing effective techniques for displaying subtitles. The BBC sees its VR R&D programme as keeping it ahead of the curb and maintaining its relevance in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Much like PBS, the BBC has produced short pieces of content and has made them available via its BBC Taster website. Examples include Invisible Italy 360°, a documentary that immerses viewers in a tour of Italy’s ancient urban structures and We Wait, an animated story about the journey of a refugee family entering Europe, based on interviews with migrants by BBC News.

Yet regardless of its rapid development, the VR format is still in its technological infancy and its current cost puts high quality equipment out of reach of most audiences. Its relative youth also means there is minimal archive footage available to documentary makers working in VR, although CGI and dramatic reconstructions could make up for this to some extent – again at a substantial cost.


CBC/Radio-Canada has, however, managed to make the VR experience more accessible to some extent and actively used it to raise awareness about key local issues by touring VR content and equipment.

In October 2016, CBC Radio One produced CBC’s first short VR documentary, Highway of Tears, which brought to light the story of Ramona Wilson, a 16-year-old girl who went missing in 1994 along the infamous Highway 16 in British Colombia. Her body was found nearly a year later.

Known locally as the Highway of Tears, Ramona’s case was not the first nor the last along the road, especially among local First Nations communities. According to local authorities 18 women have been murdered or have gone missing along the route since the 1970s although indigenous leaders put the number closer to 50.

Directed by Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson, the documentary provides “a visceral experience of the landscape and the personal tragedies that haunt that landscape and that have affected so many Indigenous people in Canada.”

The film is available via CBC’s VR app and Youtube but is best experienced via the Occulus Rift or Gear VR Headset. Yet after a new federal inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women was launched in September, CBC Radio One’s The Current showed the documentary to a public forum in Prince George, an area with close links to the highway.

According to CBC, more than 250 people attended the event, with attendees able to use the VR equipment, which helped to fuel discussion, the sharing of stories and raise awareness about those who have experienced victimisation and violence or about those who have gone missing.

Based on the success of the event and VR’s ability to contextualise events in such an immersive way, The Current planned to tour the documentary at a series of town hall meetings across the country.


As with any new tech, there are initial caveats and constraints – especially regarding access. Yet these forays into VR clearly demonstrate the potential the format has for public broadcasters to fulfil their remits. This is partly due to its immersive properties that put audiences at the heart of the action, giving them a greater sense of presence and the potential for rich interactivity with the subject matter.

These are just three examples of current VR efforts by PSBs and we will continue to report on VR as it develops. You can keep track of the BBC’s VR research via its R&D website.

Header image: Google Cardboard VR headset. Image: othree/Creative Commons