Visiting Buckingham Palace, unless you’re a member of the Royal family, isn’t easy. The Palace is open to the public for just a couple of months a year, meaning there are potentially hundreds of thousands of visitors to squeeze into a very small space of time. That’s before we get into school tours, for which only a few weeks are set aside. Therefore, it’s a complicated enough challenge for U.K. schools to manage a visit, and almost impossible for schools outside the country to get into the palace.
That’s where Google Expeditions comes in. It carries Buckingham Palace — and a world of other historical and culturally important destinations — around in a box, ready to show kids these amazing places in immersive 360-degree stills and video. Without ever leaving the classroom, students can see the world. Buckingham Palace is one of the most recent tours rendered in stunning 360-degree stills for use by Google Expeditions, and I got a demo during the VRUKFest event, plus a chance to get an insight into how these tours are shot and created.
Short window of opportunity
Google approached the Royal Collection — a charitable trust in charge of presenting the wealth of artifacts owned by the Royal family — in mid-November 2015, saying the Palace was the number one most requested place kids around the world wanted to see. Although the Royal Collection team has dabbled with technology in the past — it operates several apps, a Facebook page, and even uses 3D printing — this was an entirely new direction for the trust.
The decision had to be made quickly, as the intention was to officially launch the tour during an event hosted on January 20, but many people had to agree to the endeavor, including the Master of the House, Vice-Admiral Anthony Johnstone-Burt, who manages the Palace on a daily basis. In the end, it was the educational focus which saw the project greenlit. However, work didn’t start on the project until after the Christmas break and New Year. Shooting a 360-degree tour in a venue like Buckingham Palace would surely be weeks of work, right?
Surprisingly, it only took a morning, and if the interactive 360-degree video hadn’t been shot and narrated at the same time, the entire project would have been all over in just an hour — Not that it wasn’t a challenge. The team was attempting to shoot seven rooms in a working Palace, where staff members were constantly moving between the enormous rooms. However, that wasn’t the biggest issue. The largest obstacle was presented by mirrors, of which there are many in the Palace, and most of them are massive. Placing the camera in a position that still captured important artwork or details, but not reflections, was a constant problem.
Google captures images for its Expeditions projects using the Jump VR camera, a circular rig with 16 GoPro cameras fitted on it, each taking 4K-quality pictures. It took two people to operate Jump VR, along with an audio technician to record the sound for the video, plus various members of the Royal Collection organizing the tour, to complete the shoot. Once finished, Google took care of the post-production, while the Royal Collection provided the content for the Expedition app. Everything was finished in time for the all-important launch date.
The way these Expeditions wind up in a classroom, and how they’re presented to students once they’re there, is really cool. Google packs up a box with its Cardboard VR viewers, a phone for each one, a command tablet, and a router. Then, an Expedition team heads off to a school to show the presentation. At the moment, Google’s process gets around the need for the school to provide the right hardware, and the requirement for an Internet connection. Google is carrying Buckingham Palace around in a box, and kids in a school anywhere in the world can have a tour of a place they may have only seen in pictures in a book. That’s pretty great.
Each phone is fitted inside Cardboard, then linked to the router, where they’re entirely controlled by the tablet. The teacher leads the presentation using the custom app, which has information on each scene provided by the Royal Collection, along with relevant questions and talking points. For the kids staring into Google Cardboard, arrows point their gaze in the right direction, highlighting points of interest. For teachers, the app actually shows where each headset is looking, so if Britney is staring at the ceiling instead of a painting, the teacher knows.
Magical classroom experience
Britney could be forgiven for looking at the ceiling, because each room inside the Palace is wondrous. It has been a while since I was at school, and I’ve never toured the Palace in real life, but I was enraptured. The intention was to inspire children, but it did an excellent job of making me smile and take real joy from what is an astonishing place. I can only imagine how a child will react.
What’s more, it didn’t ‘spoil’ the Palace, but actually made me want book an actual tour, so I could see the true scale, and marvel at the opulence through my own eyes. Aside from the amazing Palace itself, this proved the effectiveness of Google’s Expedition program, and the care taken by the Royal Collection over the final product.
Once the lesson is over, Google packs up its box, folding down each Cardboard unit at the same time, ready to jet off to the next classroom; and it doesn’t matter whether that’s in London, New York, or Tibet. Google says the Expedition program is about going where the school bus can’t, and Buckingham Palace is just one of many exciting locations it can take kids, from the White House to the Great Barrier Reef. And it’s all stored in an easily transportable box. Damn kids get all the fun.