U.S. President Donald Trump has really upped the war of words with North Korea in the past few months, prompting an endless flow of news reports about the hermit regime.
What these reports often leave out, though, is the daily life in the North’s capital.
People commuting, playing, cycling, praying, chatting, moving around the city. What is it like to live in one of the most authoritarian, secretive places on earth?
To try to answer this question and fill a massive curiosity gap, a Swedish startup has produced a fascinating virtual reality experience that parachutes you straight into the streetlife of urban North Koreans.
From the outset, it is clear that North Korea VR is more than your simple 360-degree video.
Using the SceneThere platform, users have the chance to interact with the video and stay longer in that world, to explore at their own pace.
“We’re interested in 360 videos, they’re a great medium to report in amazing places not framing reality but actually going in and seeing it. But they’re limited,” said Marcus Olsson, the cofounder and CEO of Swedish startup SceneThere.
“Until now it wasn’t possible to change camera position, it was up to the director. We’re giving a chance for people to walk around and explore at their own pace.”
From the top of the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, you can freely roam around Mansu Hill, where 22-metre-tall statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il dominate the city, or watch people commuting or kids rollerblading in Kim Il-sung Square, which is usually covered by crowds or military parades.
The transition between one place or the other is made by looking at blue dots that appear on the screen.
Olsson gathered the footage in September 2016, during a visit to North Korea arranged by the Choson Exchange, an NGO that organises educational training for people in business, finance, law, and economic policy.
“I didn’t know much about North Korea and all I could find online were videos of parades or official footage from the regime,” he said. “So I brought my 360 cameras with the idea of making it into a VR in our platform.”
Filming in Pyongyang with the equipment six GoPro cameras lashed to a pole was surprisingly easy, according to Olsson.
“I didn’t have the same restrictions as tourists or journalists because I was there to give a speech and educate North Koreans about the startup mindset,” he said.
“Journalists are very controlled in what they can film, it’s harder for them to get in touch with the everyday experience.”
A propaganda tool?
Naturally, that doesn’t mean Olsson and his troupe were free to see and film everything. North Korea is one of the most repressive countries in the world and tight surveillance is everywhere.
“This is not investigative journalism we were never alone when filming,” he said. “We were also prevented from filming an acrobatic show in a circus.”
Still, North Korea VR offers some glimpses of life in the capital that are pretty unique like fishermen waiting for a catch or Pyongyang residents doing their morning rites by Taedong river.
The video has a voiceover commentary from Andray Abrahamian, a North Korea scholar based in the UK, which adds some depth and neutral expertise to what you see.
However, there is an argument that those kind of videos could be used by the regime as a propaganda tool in a PR effort to polish North Korea’s image to the world in a time of tensions.
“There is an argument that you shouldn’t go there as a tourist because it’s like pouring money directly into the hands of the regime,” Robert Kelly, Professor of Political Science at Pusan National University, told Mashable.
Kelly, who many people know as “BBC Dad,” has visited North Korea and was quite impressed by the North Korea 360 video. “It’s an accurate and correct depiction of Pyongyang,” he said.
However, Pyongyang is nothing like the rest of North Korea.
“It’s like a third-world country once you leave the capital,” he said. “It’s similar to Mozambique and Namibia: once you leave urban centres, the quality of infrastructure falls.”
Whether you are a tourist or an academic, visiting North Korea is mostly a faked and rigged experience as the regime follows you closely and forces you to see what they want you to see. That is true also for North Korea VR, Kelly said.
“Still, it’s better than seeing nothing,” he added. “There’s an argument that visiting North Korea allows them to see the world and think that maybe foreigners are not all imperialists.
“It also helps humanising North Koreans to the rest of the world. Meeting each other creates a sense of common humanity.”
The tech specs
From a technical point of view, SceneThere created the VR experience with a simple but effective strategy.
After filming in 10 different locations in Pyongyang, the team linked the videos together producing a 3D model based on their GPS coordinates. Once the map was done, 55 spheres, which represent the points where you could walk to and from, became visible.
The videos, which are from 16 seconds up to 1 minute long, are in loop, so the user can rewatch them to note any missing details for as long as they want.
“The resolution is 4K which is sufficient to watch on a headset, Gear VR, and the user can very smoothly go from one point to the other,” Olsson said. “The download happens before the video starts playing so it’s easier to create the experience.”
For the future, SceneThere, which already produced virtual tourist maps of Malm and the favelas in , is planning to bring VR to the people of North Korea.
“We filmed the startup conference in Finland, attended by 15,000 people, with the idea of bringing a VR video to the country to educate people to the startup mindset teaching them how to create a pitch or position product,” he said.
“Some of our students had great ideas but were never exposed to the internet so they didn’t have words to describe concepts like viral marketing, for example.
“We think VR is an exciting tool for tele-transportation in places with very limited access.”
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