• Opabinia

    The five-eyed Opabinia, one of several prehistoric marine creatures viewers will encounter in First Life, a new virtual reality experience at the Canadian Museum of Nature. (Image: Atlantic Productions) 

We know from the fossil record that life on Earth began in the oceans; now, thanks to digital technology, the average non-scientist can get an idea of what the earliest life forms looked like and how they functioned in their watery context.

The Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa has launched a new virtual reality experience of David Attenborough's groundbreaking documentary First Life, produced by Alchemy VR and featuring 360-degree views of the prehistoric oceans and the creatures that evolved there. 

After strapping on a Samsung Gear VR headset, visitors are immersed in the oceans of 540 million years ago, recreated in detail by the award-winning team at ZOO VFX, as Attenborough introduces some of the strange, now-extinct marine creatures that were among the first significant life forms to appear on our planet. Many of the species, including the five-eyed Opabinia, the spiny Hallucigenia and Anomalocaris — whose name literally means "abnormal shrimp" — were first identified from fossils discovered in the Burgess Shale in British Columbia's Yoho National Park. 

"We're always searching for new and innovative ways to engage our visitors," says Ailsa Barry, the museum's VP of Experience and Engagement. "This is a way to literally do a deep dive into the natural world and bring history to life." 

Up to 15 people can participate in the VR experience at once, although the museum is hoping to expand its virtual reality offerings in the fall. Screenings of First Life will take place in the museum's Fossil Gallery on Thursday evenings and Saturday and Sunday afternoons now until June 4. 

Related: Sir David Attenborough awarded Gold Medal by the RCGS