Profmed, South Africa’s largest restricted medical aid program for professionals, is producing a series of 8-episode vodcasts that explore how we can care for today, while building a positive outlook for the future. The third episode features Ulrico Grech-Cumbo, filmmaker, businessman and conservationist who founded Habitat XR, an impact-driven production studio focused on immersing people in nature using extended reality (XR) technologies. The goal? Using digital immersion (virtual reality experiences) in nature as a way to get people to worry about environmental issues like climate change. – Claire Badenhorst
Ulrico Grech-Cumbo what Habitat XR is all about:
So, Habitat XR: We call it an immersive experience and an immersive study, and our overall mission is to use immersive storytelling as a tool to create impact and reconnect people with nature. So all we do and have been doing for the last five, six years is exploring this territory and using this kind of marginal technology to make people feel, ironically, through technology about nature.
Ultimately, it’s about changing people’s attitudes and behaviors. So we’ve put them in that kind of captive states where they’re more willing to mobilize for some kind of cause and that could be a donation to a non-profit organization for conservation. It could be putting headphones on politicians or policymakers, legislators and changing regulations that protect nature. Therefore, there are several ways in which the impact can be the result of immersive narratives and immersive experiences. Impact is a very subjective word. A lot of people launch it, but we try to be very responsible for being able to measure the impact and actually create campaigns that change something tangibly.
In its fundraising initiative with the Ellen Fund:
So the Ellen Fund attracted us through its partnership with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. They partnered with Rwanda to protect the mountain gorillas in this area, so they invited us to go up to Rwanda and go on excursions to wild mountain gorillas and film and capture them in 360 de so that a lot of other people could experience what we experienced. on top of that volcanic mountain. Initially we had no intention of going to Los Angeles and at the last minute we were invited saying to bring as many headphones as possible. [The] next thing we [are] trying to set up these headphones, the doors open and the Kardashians come in and Leo DiCaprio comes in and, you know, Julia Roberts comes in. It’s a very, very surreal memory.
But I think what’s so amazing is that Ellen saw what virtual reality can be beyond being an artifice and a lot of people who have experienced virtual reality before have seen it and experienced the roller coaster experience or something. of, you know, Jurassic Park Thing. I think what’s amazing is that he saw that it could be an impact tool. So what I wanted to do in this particular fundraiser is set the context of what I wanted to protect. So we had 400 Hollywood A-list celebrities putting on headphones and spending five to six minutes with wild mountain gorillas. And if you have never experienced virtual reality, the amazing thing that happens and where the content differs between traditional media and virtual reality [are] is that the mind of the person experiences the state of what we call telepresence.
So telepresence is the mind’s belief that the body is physically elsewhere and suddenly, physiologically, things change in your body, so if I put on a headset and a gorilla starts you to walk, if you measured your heart rate, your skin response, [and] your brain activity, this data would be indistinguishable from the actual experience. This is really the golden opportunity. And so he understood it and it was a successful campaign. They raised $ 5 million in one night to conserve the gorillas.
Why it works for conservation:
He becomes a witness. So it’s the difference of being a spectator and becoming a witness. When you become a witness, these experiences are real. They’re digital, they’re virtual, but they’re actually real to you as a real human being. And this is where the usefulness of virtual reality and other technologies in this toolbox with immersive technology comes from.
About catching snow leopards in India:
It was a fascinating campaign for the United Nations Development Program in India. So they have a challenge up there, in northern India, in the kind of Himalayan mountain ranges, which have a lot of conflicts between human life and wildlife because you have villagers who have goats and cattle. and yaks, and these animals are being attacked by snow leopards, by bears, by wolves out there, so they are poisoning them. But these animals are incredibly rare. Their habitats have been demolished in the last 50, 100 years. So the campaign explored the conflict between wildlife and humans specifically for legislators and policy makers so they could witness what’s going on there, meet the villagers, but also reach a kind of nose to nose with these wild animals.
So the snow leopard was crazy. Everyone who works out there and captures snow leopards with the camera said it’s absolutely impossible, and here [are] these two Joburgs agree with this lofty idea that we will be filming snow leopards virtually manually, one of the most elusive animals in the world. We fantasized about filming them all that filming and every night we said, well, if nature wants us to tell this story, the door will open.
On the last day of filming, we had this old boy from the village come knocking on the door and articulate with his hands that there was something strange on the tracks. So we took a walk as far as we could, took out the target and saw these snow leopards killed on a kid. What we try and do when we film wildlife is try to take advantage of natural behaviors, and therefore we know from common African leopards that these leopards usually feed and walk away, drink water and kill again. So we said, hey, if these guys do it, I’ll go up the whole mountain at all costs and get down a camera next to that goat and try to film these snow leopards. This is exactly what happened. They moved towards the rocks, [we] I went up there, it almost wore out (I mean, I think it was 16 or 17,000 feet), I had a camera up there, and luckily and lined up the tech stars, we were able to shoot 45 minutes of these three leopards from the snows approaching back to this murder, feeding, interacting with each other, was absolutely stunning.
On the impact of virtual reality as a technology:
Many people think of virtual reality as a new technology, but it has existed for the last seven or eight years and this time has allowed people like us to explore how to make it useful. The pandemic has also turned it upside down, right? People can’t travel, people can’t be in the same physical space as others. It has been amazing to see how virtual reality is becoming a tool to bring people closer to each other.
You know, an example of this is an event we produced last year. It usually takes place in the real world and it is a wildlife festival (it takes place in Durban) and they were looking to cancel the whole festival. We told them, look, there’s this new technology we’ve been studying, called social VR. And so social RV basically puts people in a virtual environment where they can walk and explore, but they are portrayed as avatars of themselves and the rest of the people around them. So you’re running with another 300 avatars and you can talk to them in real time and experience these amazing environments.
So, you know, instead of the main keys taking place at the Sandton Convention Center or the Durban Convention Center, you’re in a ruin in the jungle. You are already in a bioluminescent cave and therefore unlocked all this incredible potential. We sent all these headphones all over the world to people from India, North America and all over Africa, so there were people in their closed apartments and houses, putting on some headphones and transporting them to this amazing collaborative environment. It’s been amazing to see.
By using holograms for educational purposes and creating awareness:
Holograms adapt very well to this type of immersive technology tools and there have been some very exciting advances in this hardware. For example, there’s a company called The Looking Glass, so the mirror is a glass slab, and what’s so interesting is that it’s not just a computer-generated photorealistic model that seems to have depth inside that little one. glass block, but it is interactive. So there is a sensor that can track your fingers and, for example, with this frog, when you wave your fingers in front of it, your eyes track them and, if you stop moving your finger, it throws its tongue and, in a certain way way, you know, it simulates feeding on a fly. Therefore, it gives life to many opportunities. You know, kids go to zoos, for example. They open the tanks because they want the feedbacks from the poor snake, turtle or whatever is in the tank. But now we can generate a little of these moments using holograms. So I think they are very powerful.
Technology sometimes intimidates many people who don’t work in this space. But [the] the best use of technology is always an easy-to-use case. For example, with holograms, you can, as an engineering or architectural firm, preview and view physical components even before you start manufacturing them to try to see if there are any defects or see how they occur react with others components. So there really is everything to meet a specific need, and I think the lack of physical proximity in this new post-pandemic world we live in, these technologies are being the first. Therefore, it is only a matter of exploring utility and value.
On the key message he would like South Africans to adopt:
I think where our hearts are aligned as a company, such as Habitat XR, is that we trust nature a lot more than we think we do. Everything is absolutely interconnected and changing the culture of how we consume and approach nature is incredibly important to our own well-being. Everyone has a role to play. We learned that.
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