I'm standing on the top of the Juche Tower in the heart of Pyongyang. It's a beautiful sunny day, and the city sprawls out along the banks of the Taedong river below. To my right is Mansu Hill and its 22-metre tall statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. To my left is the city's atom-shaped Science and Technology Centre, its central atrium dominated by an enormous missile.
A blue dot appears, and I stare at it for a moment. Suddenly I'm in the lobby of the Pyongyang Hotel, where one Tripadvisor user complains that "the staff are quite unwilling to talk to Westerners". Another blue dot later, and I'm on the waterfront in the early morning watching elderly women dance.
This is Pyongyang VR - a virtual reality experience that gives a glimpse of life in the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, arguably the most repressive country in the world. It's the creation of Marcus Olsson, the co-founder and CEO of Swedish startup SceneThere which produces custom 360-degree video experiences - from a virtual tourist map of Malmö, to conversations with inhabitants of the Gereba favela in northeastern Brazil.
"360-degree video has the potential to make you feel like you're there, but to us it always felt a bit limited in the sense you weren't able to move around and have agency of your own situation," Olsson tells WIRED. "So we developed a platform which makes it possible for you to interact, and you can stay longer - you can explore a certain space at your own pace."
The result is an app, available on the web and in the Gear VR store, which combines 360-degree movies captured in Pyongyang with a politically-neutral voiceover commentary from Andray Abrahamian, a North Korea scholar based in the UK. "We invited him to add a deeper layer of understanding to the places that we're visiting, a deeper understanding for what the significance of these places are for North Korea," says Olsson.
The footage was collected in September 2016, when Olsson visited North Korea as part of a group of Nordic technology entrepreneurs invited to give workshops on innovation and entrepreneurship. The trip was arranged by the Choson Exchange, where Abrahamian works as research director - a non-governmental organisation which supports business-minded individuals in the DPRK with training in business, finance, law and economic policy.
"Many of our trainings on business, finance, law, economic policy, and related fields are hosted by professionals who volunteer their time and expertise." the organisation writes on its website, "We believe that entrepreneurship provides a viable path towards positive change and a healthy civil society in North Korea, as well as a unique opportunity for foreign experts to learn more about a country that remains widely unknown."
"I was invited to educate about startups, and entrepreneurship," says Olsson. "It was a very rare experience to be able to meet a culture which has not been exposed to the internet and many of the services we're used to in the world outside of North Korea. The startup mindset – agile thinking and so on – is a completely new concept for them. But they were very smart. They came up with ideas and concepts that they didn't yet have words for."
Getting permission to use his 360-degree camera, Olsson says, was surprisingly easy. The rig, which consists of six GoPro cameras lashed to a pole, was unfamiliar enough to the locals that it attracted little attention. "The rig went through border control without me having to explain it too much," he says. "And when I was filming I asked for permission. There was only one occasion that I wasn't allowed to film – a circus event. It was very low light, so I wouldn't have been able to capture it anyway."
Olsson emphasises that his goal wasn't to produce a documentary film or investigative journalism piece. "I cannot guarantee that I was given full freedom," he says. "But since I was invited as a lecturer, I was able to film in a way that would not have been possible with a tourist group, or as naturally unstaged as if I would had been a journalist."
Ultimately, Olsson hopes Pyongyang VR can help people see past the lurid headlines about North Korea and get a glimpse of what life is like for at least some of the people that live there. "I'm hoping to show a side of North Korea that has not been shown before," he says. "It's important to make a difference between the story of the leadership and the story of the people. We've been educating the people in entrepreneurship because we believe this will create positive change."
He adds: "Virtual reality is a teleportation device. So it's very interesting technology for any place that has limitations on access."