Standing in the crow’s nest of the USS Eisenhower, the Atlantic Ocean reaches to the horizon in every direction. The sound of the wind is whipping in my ears, and far below me, I can see hundreds of Navy personnel in brightly colored outfits running around on the tarmac of the aircraft carrier, a couple dozen fighter jets parked in just about every available space.
I’ve never actually been aboard an aircraft carrier, but thanks to “USS Eisenhower VR,” a brand-new virtual reality experience produced by the publishing giant Gannett, I’ve now been able to get a terrific tour of most of the vessel. And so can you.
The best thing about “Eisenhower” is that it brings you right into the middle of every scene filmed over three days during a major at-sea combat training exercise. Standing on the tarmac, you can almost feel the power of an F-18 as it catapults into the air just a few feet away. And it shows you what it’s like from inside the cockpit of one of the fighters as it speeds down the shorter-than-a-football-field runway and into the sky, and then makes a sharp turn to the right.
Similarly, you get a first-hand look from inside a resupply helicopter as it flies from a second ship toward the Eisenhower. You’re up there on the crow’s nest or in the barber shop or talking to the baristas who serve hundreds of cups of coffee a day to the sailors aboard the carrier. In every scene, you’re up close and able to look and hear all around you.
Virtual reality is quickly becoming a tool that can take you just about anywhere–as long as someone with a VR camera has been there. Gannett, which previously created a VR experience that took viewers into the cockpit with the Blue Angels, was the Navy’s obvious choice to bring its gear onto the Eisenhower—as long as the film crew was OK with not knowing precisely where in the Atlantic they were going.
Although virtual reality is expected to be a $38 billion industry by 2026, it’s still struggling to get its feet off the ground, with total hardware sales in the single-digit millions of units, and low repeat usage, even by owners of high-end systems like the HTC Vive, for which “Eisenhower” is optimized. Part of the reason for that slow adoption, though, is that there’s not enough great content, and Gannett clearly believes that making projects like this one will help with that problem.
Rather than just giving users a few 360-degree videos shot aboard the carrier, Gannett decided they wanted to make the experience interactive, said Robert Padavick, director of virtual reality for the USA Today Network. “We made the decision to build out a full-on interactive experience for the Vive,” he said.
As a result, viewers can choose which part of the Eisenhower they want to explore, and then pick from among a number of hands-on experiences: standing alongside the tarmac as the F-18 takes off, or when one lands, and listening in as commanders, pilots, and sailors explain the many dramatic elements of making an aircraft carrier function at sea.
“Eisenhower” is best viewed on a Vive, but as part of its all-in commitment to VR, Gannett wants to make sure as many people as possible can experience the carrier. So it’s produced scaled down versions of the experience for Google’s Daydream, Samsung’s Gear VR, and Sony’s PlayStation VR as well. It’s also possible to check out “Eisenhower” on either Facebook 360 or YouTube 360.