Virtual Reality and 360° Storytelling

Combining important story with innovative virtual reality storytelling, the world’s largest cave has been immortalized in an interactive 360° story.

With support from the National Geographic Global Exploration Fund and numerous sponsors, Martin Edström and his team mounted a successful expedition to Hang Son Doong in Vietnam in early 2015.

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The result was a next-generation digital story, covering large parts of the cave in 360° images and audio. This interactive and immersive experience from the cave lets you explore the cave for yourself.

As if you were there.

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A screenshot from the interactive story on nationalgeographic.com

You can now explore the Son Doong 360 interactive story for yourself on nationalgeographic.com.

Hang Son Doong in Vietnam is the world’s largest cave. It’s opening was discovered in the early 1990s, but the cave wasn’t fully explored until in 2009. Scientists have just begun to unravel its many unique features and describe its specific ecology.

A unique landscape has formed inside Son Doong thanks to two collapsed dolines, or sinkholes, that let daylight in. This has given life to the cave, making it possible for two separate forests to grow within the cave.

Since the full discovery in 2009, only a few dozen people have been able to see the cave from the inside.

Large-scale tourism threatening Son Doong

In 2014, plans to build massive infrastructure inside Son Doong became public. One such plan was to build a cable-car system inside the cave, which would greatly alter the cave’s pristine condition.

This was met with a massive outcry from conservationists and cave scientists, as well as from parts of the general public.

These potential developments gave urgency to this project: telling the story of Son Doong before it was too late.

The Expedition

The expedition to Son Doong combined the need for a lot of next-generation thinking. How do you portray a cave in an interactive story? How do you light and capture some of the world’s largest caverns in 360° images?

“Son Doong’s caverns can easily fit a Boeing 747 flying through. How are we going to light all of that in 360°?”

The largest challenges included lighting the cave, and getting enough time with the lights to capture massive 360° images in gigapixel format. This takes a lot of time for each image, and gave need for a lot of battery power.

After spending about a week in the field, living and working in the cave for several days (thanks to equal parts meticulous planning and luck) Edström and his team could celebrate a successful mission in January 2015.

In the bag(s) was over 700 gigabytes of data: source images for 360° images, still photographs, video and audio. This was now to be converted into the interactive story about Son Doong.

The Story

The 360° images, together with sounds recorded in and around the cave, were then combined to a large interactive story where the reader can “walk” around inside the cave. Thanks to the high resolution of the images, the user can zoom in and look at features inside the cave in great detail.

This innovative digital capture of the cave lets scientists and cave researchers have a detailed look at many sections of the cave. And no matter what happens to the cave in the future, this digital copy will remain for people to explore online.

Perhaps most importantly, it gives people free access online to explore Hang Son Doong – as if they were there themselves.

The Team

The Son Doong 360 project could never have been done without the help and support from several fantastic individuals.

Martin brought a stellar team of 7 to be his core photography team, including assistant photographer Erik Hinnerdal, behind-the-scenes-meister Mats Kahlström, timesheet-manager Alfred Runow, comms-dude Fredrik Edström, game-developer Sebastian Zethraeus and doctor Katja Adolphson.

To help with the logistics of arranging an expedition of this size to Son Doong, Martin Edström and his team relied on the fantastic help from expedition organizer Oxalis. Led by Howard and Deb Limbert, the 40-something troupe from Oxalis was nothing short of essential to the expedition’s success.

The Gear

The expedition had to bring a ton of gear into the remote Vietnam jungle and into the cave. To create high resolution 360 degree images the team needed several robotic camera heads, that could automate parts of the process.

But capturing 360-images from all the tight spaces in the cave from a robotic head was not possible, so Martin also used smaller camera rigs using a single DSLR to capture some of the locations for the story.

Since 360 photography revolves a lot around stitching the images – before you can even view them – the team brought several high-end laptops with them, to be able to stitch the images and preview the 360-photographs inside the cave.

Sponsors

Behind the expedition stand a host of fantastic sponsors, first of all the National Geographic Global Exploration Fund.

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Vital to the success of the expedition was Dell and Intel, supporting Martin and the team with the latest computer technology that was used both in the field and in post-production.

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Thanks to this, on-the-fly rendering and prototyping was possible even inside the world’s largest cave.

With the massive amounts of equipment needed during an expedition like this, the project benefited from generous support of Energizer, Exped, FiveTen, Freedom360, Kolor, Manfrotto, Nikon, Nodal Ninja, Sennheiser, Thuraya, Zodiac and Zoom.