Explore religious buildings in London: 360° videos

I’ve just completed a video project for The Open University where viewers take a guided tour round 7 of London’s principal religious buildings in full 360° detail. The videos are embedded at the bottom of this post.

Why we made the videos

Here’s what Prof. John Wolffe, an academic I worked with, said:

These short videos are designed to replicate on screen the experience of visiting seven of London’s principal religious buildings through the use of 360° technology. Each building is introduced by a leading member of the community associated with it.

Although Christianity has long lost its historic religious monopoly, it remains the largest religious tradition in London, and has indeed seen some resurgence in recent years. Hence three out of the seven buildings are Christian ones. St Paul’s Cathedral represents the Church of England, still the national church with residual ties to the state although actively supported only by a minority of London’s Christians. Westminster Cathedral and Jesus House represent the two numerically largest Christian groups, Roman Catholics and Pentecostals. The latter have grown particularly rapidly since the turn of the millennium.

The other four buildings represent London’s (and the UK’s) four largest religious minorities. The early eighteenth-century Bevis Marks Synagogue is a striking physical reminder that religious diversity has a long history in this country dating back to the readmission of the Jews in 1656. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs have also had a longstanding presence in London, although major purpose-built places of worship such as the Neasden Temple, the East London Mosque and the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara have only appeared in recent decades.

These buildings offer just one approach to the study of religion. They do however enable one to begin to appreciate some comparisons and contrasts between major traditions. To take the study further one needs, among other things, also to be aware of the countless smaller and inconspicuous places of worship to be found all over London and other towns and cities; to look at the rituals and practices taking place both in these buildings and in many other places; to understand the role of sacred texts and images in religious life; and to reflect on the nature and significance of religious experience. We should also balance the rich ‘insider’ perspectives offered in these videos with more detached academic analysis and remember that the rich internal diversity of religious traditions means that other ‘insiders’ might have different perspectives from the speaker in a particular video.

These films therefore serve as a ‘taster’ for a new Open University module, A227 Exploring Religion: Places, Practices, Texts and Experiences which will be offered from autumn 2017, and will pursue all these issues in depth.

Issues with publishing and embedding

This was a fun project! Despite the hype around 360° videos, there remains several issues with publishing and embedding them on OpenLearn, the OU’s site for free learning:

  • The videos display correctly when played on YouTube on desktop machines in Chrome.
  • On mobiles and tablets, they work fine in the YouTube app, but not on mobile browsers. They display in their ‘unstitched’ state. Imagine the 360° video as a sphere, then flatten it out. It’s not attractive or useful.
  • Even on a desktop, when the YouTube videos are embedded on a site, they usually (but not always) display unstitched.
  • Uploading them to Facebook helps! They can be embedded on other sites without any noticeable problems on desktop browsers. Except…
  • They don’t play in mobile browsers. The videos don’t even appear.
  • Another option is to use Google VR, but there are more bugs and issues for various browser/OS combinations.
  • OpenLearn itself isn’t responsively designed, making it harder for mobile users in general. We’re addressing this as part of a relaunch and redesign later this month.

It turns out that making 360° for all users is harder than the platforms would have you believe. There doesn’t seem to be a single way to present the videos to all users across all devices.

I’ve had to include some clunky advisory text on the OU site that some people probably won’t even notice. I’m yet to widely promote the videos on OU accounts until I can find an better way to do this.

Watch the videos

So, the videos below are embedded from Facebook. If you’re using a mobile or tablet, they may not play correctly or display at all. You can try opening the YouTube playlist in the YouTube app.

Building the London Underground

I’m working on two BBC/OU projects at the moment. One is an upcoming BBC Two series about the Thames Tideway Scheme, provisionally titled Super Sewer; the other is a follow-up to The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway, looking at the construction of London’s Crossrail.

It’s gotten me thinking a lot about large infrastructure projects. In a bookshop today I was thumbing through books about Britain’s overground railways system, not quite finding exactly what I wanted. (It doesn’t help that I’m not sure exactly what I want—I suppose I’ll know when I see it.)

I started thinking about London’s Underground, and all the challenges involved in creating the world’s first underground railway, when I came across this piece from The York Herald and General Advertiser, August 6th, 1853:

Intended Subterranean Metropolitan Railway

Among the Bills which have received the sanction of Parliament, there is one which relates to a project, which, when known, will excite very great interest in the metropolis.

It is for the purpose of making a railway under the ground from the lower end of the Edgware Road to the Kings Cross.

The subterranean railway will, for the most part, run beneath the New Road.

The estimated capital for the execution of the work is £300,000 and, as a proof that the scheme can be completed for this sum, a responsible contractor has already offered to undertake the execution of it at considerably less than the amount we have specified.

What is more, a party of the highest respectability has engaged to give a guarantee of six per cent for a period of twenty years, on the amount of the capital expended.

The length of this underground railway will be less than two miles and a half. There will be stations at very short distances – say, at every quarter of a mile; and it si intended that the charges shall be so moderate that the omnibuses running along the New Road will not have a chance against their subterranean rival.

The charge for the whole distance in first-class will be only twopence.

The carriages will be superior to anything to be found on any railway in England.

Owing to the nature of the substratum along the course of the line, it will be perfectly free from damp all the way; and, as every carriage will be abundantly lighted, the ride will be pleasant in the highest degree.

The works will be speedily commenced, and it is expected that the line will be in full operation in little more than twelve months.

I’d be fascinated to read more about how this was achieved. Anyone got any recommendations?

Update: I’ve ordered The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground Was Built and How it Changed the City Forever by Christian Wolmar.