This zoo-approved VR app wants to get you up close with animals

SXSW: The Zoological Society of London talks about its mobile VR project
Get up close with animals in 360 video

There are still only a limited number of VR apps to download and that's precisely why environmentalists are choosing virtual reality as the next medium for educating us about wildlife. The rule in VR is still very much, make it and people will download it.

Incorporating VR isn't a new concept for zoos and wildlife centers but it's novel enough that figuring out how to film, stream and reach people are topics that are still being grappled with.

At SXSW Interactive, we heard from conservation experts discussing how and why their efforts are turning to VR to protect the wild.

Bringing nature back

A year ago, ex-WWF digital innovation manager Adrian Cockle, Zoological Society of London (ZSL) technical specialist Alasdair Davies and creative technologist Jack Chalkley came together and formed project Seven Seconds Ago.

The aim of the project was to educate the public about nature through immersive content. Through ZSL and an app called Instant Wild, Davies and his team have created a citizen science program that allows people to view images captured in nature to identify animals.

Though popular and effective in aiding worldwide conservationists, it became apparent from the numbers that the primary user base is aged 50 and up whereas use by a younger 2o something crowd is quite low.

There has been a major disconnect between kids and nature which bleeds into a general lack of interest as they grow older. With the thriving enthusiasm for virtual reality, especially in younger generations, VR became the obvious road to pursue.

But using VR isn't just a simple gimmick. There are still questions about how to create emotional experiences and how to make it enjoyable. "If we put people in the wild, are we going make them feel happy? Scared? Threatened? Are we going to make them feel proud? Protective? These are the questions that are really important for us to answer," said Cockle at SXSW.

Curious creatures don't mix with VR

The questions that the project found itself answering got more and more technical as well - for instance, is live streaming better than clips? The team are still trying to figure this one out but they have more or less settled on clips. Why? Well, animals generally don't hang around one place very often which makes live streaming pretty boring.

They have, however, experimented with live feeds at the zoo with normal cameras, which has helped them figure out it is possible to stream if there's a solid internet connection nearby.

Then there's the problem of how to actually film the critters. 360 degree GoPro rigs have been the camera of choice so far but it has proven to be a rather fragile set up when left in the hands, or paws, of nature.

Typically, camera capture traps are used for the static images showcased in the Instant Wild app. These can be hidden or strapped to trees, safely out of the way of curious, destructive creatures.

360 rigs can't provide the same luxury. The ZSL has experimented with placing fishbowls over the GoPro cameras but this distorts the image in the end result. Additionally, meerkats, which were the guinea pigs for the rig, were far too inquisitive and stuck their little paws all over the cameras, effectively covering up one of the lenses.

During the stitching process, this shows up as a black spot which makes the footage unusable. Because the meerkats moved too close to the cameras, post-production had to cut even more images otherwise you'd see half a meerkat. Out of 30 minutes of capture, only three minutes made the final cut.

Ideally, the rig would have to be "wild proof." That means it needs to be waterproof, more durable and animal proof in a way that encloses the camera without altering the footage. Additional rig perks include night vision, motion detection - which would help with live-streaming so it doesn't record hours of nothing - long lasting batteries, streaming software and automatic stitching.

None of these features are really available in one camera which leaves the group with limited filming options, looking to speak to manufacturers to rent out rigs or maybe even Frankenstein their own camera to properly shoot in the wild.

Now, take off the headset

Despite the hurdles, the team remain determined to ignite public interest in nature through VR. They're not the only ones either. During the Q&A portion of the SXSW session, staff from the Georgia Aquarium and Singapore Zoo among others shared their questions, concerns and own solutions for VR conservation efforts.

Chalkley says the experiences they're trying to create will be targeted at lower end platforms like Google Cardboard and Samsung's Gear VR when they launch. Kids and families will have more access to these low priced headsets which gives Instant Wild a fighting chance to show off wildlife experiences, alongside games and TV episodes in app stores.

However, Cockle noted that VR is a means to an end: "VR is not the answer," it is simply a stepping stone, a way to attract attention to issues such as wildlife conservation. The end goal is for young people to take off the VR headset after an immersive experience and get involved, or at least more interested, in the beauty of the natural world.

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