How AR and VR can elevate the Zoo experience

17 October 2022 09:00

Augmented Reality (AR) adds a digital later to the physical world by introducing digital sensory stimuli such as visual elements or sound. AR has the potential to enhance the tourism industry. Specifically, this technology may be just what the world needs to safely and ethically revive zoos.

Cage Free Zoos

There are many benefits to zoos integrating AR experiences for their guests. The first is that it eliminates the need to coop animals up in small cages. Zoos can utilize AR in their infrastructure and support systems to bring immersive experiences of the exotic cats, in the wild, to their visitors.

The reason that zoos use cages to house animals is so visitors can feel safe from the animal while still experiencing it close up. However, this solution isn't perfect for humans or animals, as seen by the Harambe incident at the Cincinnati Zoo. Because of this, zoo visitors can feel and be safer exploring an animal's habitat in VR. And with immersive technology, zoos can still maintain their exhibit without causing distress to animals.

Susan Bass, who is the director of public relations at Big Cat Rescue, is a big advocate for AR experiences surrounding big cats. Her excitement is almost contagious as she explains, "In an AR experience, there are no bars separating you from the cat. It's almost like you can touch the water bowl or pet the fur without sacrificing safety." She also mentions that many times zoo visitors just see an animal sleeping in their habitat when they visit. But with AR, visitors can watch the animal roam while it's awake no matter what time of day it is. Bass stresses that the experience would be much more educational this way as well.

Bridging Technology and the Animal Tourism Industry

2019 was a big year for technology in the animal tourism industry. The world's first-ever AR Zoo opened in Tampa, Florida, in March 2019, and the second opened in Plantation, FL, on Aug 10, 2019. Since then, about a dozen AR zoos have opened worldwide. Some examples are the Air, Land & Sea Augmented Reality by INDE x National Geographic at the Toronto Zoo, an Antarctic Journey Augmented Reality by INDE at Phillip Island Nature Parks Australia, and Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco, USA.

Virtual reality (VR) is an immersive technological experience like AR but relies on a completely computer-generated environment, and the user is not as grounded in reality. An easy way to think of it is that AR adds sensory layers to the real world, while VR transports users to a new place entirely.

Immotion, a company with expertise in aquatic VR, released the first installment in its Blue Ocean Aquarium series in 2019. The program was created with the help of Jeff Hester, a prominent free-diving cinematographer, who recorded a pod of humpback whales in live-action VR in the Kingdom of Tonga while they were migrating from Antarctica during the mating season.

By combining Hester's footage with VR software, the program allows users to witness the beauty of nature, such as a female giving birth and bonding with her calf, young whales playing, and a heat run. Now, anyone can experience the awe of humpback whales from the comfort of their homes with the help of SonyVR, IOS mobile downloads, and Android. This provides an educational and fun experience for guests while changing the lives of animals in captivity, thus elevating the visit to the zoo altogether.