Aquariums, Zoos and Science Centers – The Perfect Fit
For the last two weeks, I have been writing about how various locations should be looking at virtual reality to help narrow down the selection process of VR attractions. There are so many types of VR attractions now, with more coming on the market every month, that it can bewilder even the most experienced operator.
There are four primary considerations I use when recommending a VR attraction. The intersections of these considerations create secondary ones. If you use this framework to evaluate virtual reality attractions for your location-based entertainment venue, you’ll gain traction faster, higher conversions of spectators to ticket sales, happier, more engaged staff and a faster ROI.
Recently I have been writing about how the physical attributes of the location itself can be a filter. Last week we covered Theme Parks, Shopping Centers, and Casinos. The week before, we looked at Trampoline Parks, FEC’s and the VR Arcades that started this third wave of virtual reality. This week we look at Zoos, Aquariums, and Science and Discovery Museums.
Zoos and aquariums are large, with both indoor and outdoor exhibits. Often the spaces are odd-shaped and themed to evoke the natural environment of the animals on display. It’s challenging to repurpose these spaces for a VR attraction, but when done well can be powerful, especially when employing hand tracking and mapping the physical environment to the virtual one in a multisensory experience like The VOID.
In Barcelona, the Zone of Hope, a free-roam multisensory attraction developed for Aigues de Barcelona by MediaPro Exhibitions, is aimed to raise awareness of climate change by letting people experience the effects of it. From mass flooding to bitter cold to extreme heat, guests walk through caves of ice, flooded cityscapes and ultimately a barren wasteland as they time-travel into one possible future. Retrofitting an attraction of this type into an existing hardscape exhibit would be an excellent use of space and materials.
Many zoos and aquariums have theaters designed for educational films. These can easily be repurposed to use virtual reality to deliver a much more immersive and meaningful experience to guests. New technology enables the synchronization of many headsets with surround sound to create a highly immersive 3D 360-degree experience that’s more immersive than a dome theater.
I recently experienced a VR theater at the Western Australia Maritime Museum in Perth, Australia. The Antarctica VR Experience used Oculus Go headsets in a typical theater environment to provide a more immersive experience. One hundred people at a time sat in a theater and instead of watching a 2D screen wore headsets for a 360-degree film.
Unfortunately, the video didn’t take advantage of the 3D nature of the headsets and instead showed a flat image. The filmmaker also didn’t create compelling reasons to look around over 180 degrees. This film would have presented better in a half dome or widescreen configuration. VR felt like a novelty, and the employees were harried trying to keep everything working.
Innovations in waterproof VR systems could be an excellent fit for zoos and aquariums. Pools that now house captive mammals can be repurposed to enable guests to swim with virtual dolphins, orcas, and even sharks with none of the associated risks and trauma to the animals. BallastVR operates these at waterparks like Kalahari in the Poconos.
One such project is the Dolphin Swim Club, created by Marijke Sjollema and her husband, Benno Brada.
An underwater VR experience creates next-level immersion.
“I think there’s a little more of a suspension of disbelief when you’re in a radically different environment,” Greenwood said, director of creative development at Discovery Digital Networks. “When you don’t have a sense of the ground or gravity or what’s up or what’s down, it makes it that much more believable.”
Using underwater experiences to simulate flying or floating in space is now within reach for innovative venues looking to repurpose pools and other water attractions.
Last year I traveled to the London Zoo to meet with them about how they could use virtual reality technology to reduce their dependence on captive animals, further their conservation agenda, and attract and retain new visitors. I sat in sadness in front of the lowland gorilla exhibit, where the zoo had to put grass-like decals on the windows to keep them from freaking out as visitors stared at them. I could barely see the animals, and the only empathy it created was for the poor creature trapped in children’s playground for the rest of his life.
Why not put guests behind that glass enclosure in VR goggles and have them watch lowland gorillas strolling by outside, enjoying their freedom and maybe gawking at the humans, banging on the glass to get their attention. Zoos don’t want to traumatize their guests, and this is the “entertainment” business, but there is a legacy of successful entertainment products meant to trigger deep emotions. Remember Schindler’s List? There’s no reason we cannot have experiences that are mind-blowing, deeply satisfying, and also confrontational. The first zoo that does this would have the longest queues you can imagine and garner international media attention.
Science centers and discovery museums have an even more significant opportunity to embrace VR. Not only can the experiences educate, but the technology itself is an example of applied science. Some VR Arcades are using VR to teach STEM courses to kids. Google has many free resources, and companies are creating edutainment programs to engage young audiences while they learn about everything, from math to science to history.
Some centers are creating entire exhibits around virtual reality. Virtual Science Center has created a touring exhibition called Reinventing Reality, where visitors learn about how perception, displays, digital models, tracking, and engineering bring virtual and augmented reality to life.
Since these facilities often change out their exhibits, a modular setup is critical. With the breadth of VR systems now on the market, almost anything is possible. Many have theaters, which I have covered above. Room-scale is an option too, as you can repurpose any space as small as 7X7 feet.
The Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle trialed Holodome, a small projection dome that held three people at a time incubated by the museum’s owner Paul Allen of Vulcan Ventures. They were able to repurpose a back of house area I presume was previously unused.
Since many of these businesses focus on kids, and most have a classroom environment for groups, mobile headsets might make more sense. They’re lighter and easier to use. There are no cables to get tangled and no heavy backpacks. There’s much educational content out there now that would enable STEM camps using Oculus Go, Pico Goblin or even Google Cardboard.
Pulseworks out of Atlanta, Georgia recently installed a VR motion sim at the St Louis Science Center enabling guests to float in space around the International Space Station. Simulators can offer higher throughput in a smaller footprint and decent operational efficiency for high-volume locations.
What the customer expects when they get to your facility needs to be a primary consideration. That sets the context for their experience. If the VR attraction you offer somehow is out of alignment and doesn’t quite make sense at an innate level, it makes marketing the attraction difficult and reduces the conversion rate of patrons to ticket buyers. That’s the conversation for next week.