Observing the world in Yokohama’s giant Orbi

by Toshi Maeda

Special To The Japan Times

What’s on show at this new, nature-themed high-tech museum should appeal to your senses — literally.

Take in the smell of the ocean while watching penguins wander in the polar region. Feel the wild presence of the world’s biggest lizard right next to you as it hunts and devours a water buffalo. And get a real taste of Antarctica by putting yourself in the freezing “Blizzard Room.”

All that and more is offered at Orbi, an experimental theme park, which opened on Aug. 19 in Yokohama’s Minatomirai district. A joint project between BBC Earth, the British Broadcasting Corp.’s nature — documentary unit, and Japanese video-game giant Sega, the idea behind the complex is to combine the BBC’s nature content with Sega’s cutting-edge technology to create an entertainment experience that will draw visitors into the heart of the natural world.

Sega, operator of already successful Joypolis entertainment parks in Japan that feature amusement rides and arcade games, had been looking for a new partner to expand its entertainment business. And BBC Earth turned out to be a perfect and willing fit.

“We saw that Sega had really cutting-edge technology, and it was the combination of our story-telling abilities and amazing footage and their entertainment technology to create something, which was completely new. We saw the potential immediately,” Neil Nightingale, creative director of BBC Earth, said in an interview at the complex.

Nightingale explained that Orbi’s “immersive and interactive” nature makes it very different from a television experience.

“I think there is nothing like it for nature, for wildlife — such an interactive and immersive experience that’s so inventive,” he said. “There is nothing like it in the world.”

At Orbi, specially edited versions of the BBC’s nature films are presented in all their visual, sonic, sensational and aromatic glory. The main attraction is the Orbi Theatre 23.4, named after the Earth’s axial tilt. Here, a nature film is presented on a huge 40-meter-wide, 8-meter-high, curved main screen and two rear 5×3-meter screens The theater also boasts a bespoke 3-D sound system and other high-tech features, including equipment that generates wind, fog, vibrations and even smells.

Designed to function like a “walk-in”nature documentary, the exhibition is split into areas themed around natural environments such as the sky, jungle and ocean. One installation that uses BBC Earth’s aerial footage, allows visitors to experience what it’s like to feel the wind rush by their faces as they fly 40,000 km across the planet’s surface. The simulated flying experience is so realistic that a few visitors who tried it out even reported feelings of vertigo and airsickness, said an Orbi spokesperson.

Other attractions are more popular among kids.

Hiroshi Ishii, 44, who took his 10-year-old daughter Chikane to the Orbi, said he thought it was a good educational experience for his children because “You don’t just watch the visuals, you actually get to experience things in a multi-dimensional, dynamic way.”

“I liked the freezing room best,” said Chikane, who described her experience of a world of -20 degrees in the Antarctic “Blizzard Room.”

There are thrilling scary moments as well, though, she said. In one of the darkened theaters, Chikane felt something brush her leg as she watched Komodo dragons hunting and eating a water buffalo. It was an intended “experimental” effect, but she refused to let her feet touch the floor again until the film was over.

This new way that Orbi presents wildlife footage not only takes advantage of advances in film, but also may also inspire and change the way the BBC shoots its nature-documentary programs.

“I think one of the things you will find is that when the impact and the images are of such a scale, you become totally immersed in the images,” said Nightingale of BBC Earth, whose nature films have been seen by more than 500 million people in some 180 countries.

“So we are now shooting on much higher quality cameras, which enables us to collect even more footage that can be displayed on these super-size screens to give audiences a completely different experience,” he said.

Orbi is on the 5th floor of the Mark Is Minatomirai shopping mall, next to Minatomirai Station in Yokohama. Sega and the BBC plan to branch out with Orbi outside of Japan in the future, although details are not yet available.