Virtual Reality (VR) and immersive content have become more than just buzz-phrases over the past few months, as the live entertainment industry and major organizations battle to shape a new way of engaging and interacting post Covid-19. What was once a novelty technology that a few early adopters ‘played’ with, has now become a very real solution to re-experiencing live events, engagements and gatherings, whilst observing low-contact and social distancing.
- According to the latest Statista estimates, as many as 43.5-million AR and VR headsets are set to be shipped to customers worldwide by 2025.
- According to AR Insider, nearly 1 in 5 (19%) of US consumers have used VR in 2020.
- Together, the US and China will be responsible for 58% of the global investment into VR, according to Oberlo.
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Ulrico Grech-Cumbo, founder and CEO of Habitat XR showed The Sandton Times around his creative space in Parkhurst pre-lockdown, where 3D printed first-version VR camera rigs adorn the walls. There’s also a damaged GoPro 360 camera structure, which Ulrico shares, came a little too close to an excited African Lion.
His current business came about whilst Ulrico was running an experiential marketing agency, which he had started in 2010, using all sorts of technology to create immersive experiences. One day, a client asked if he had ever done VR. He had not. Identifying an opportunity, Ulrico said: “Yep, we’re doing a lot of it these days!”. What came next was a deposit from the client and a shoot date scheduled for that very weekend. In true entrepreneur style, this commitment by the client was followed by 72 frantic hours of having to invent a 360 camera, which didn’t exist at the time. It then took Ulrico and his team a few months to figure out the post-production, but luck was on his side and the plan worked.
Shortly after, Ulrico built a website for this new VR “side hustle”; the phone rang the same day and has, since that moment, not stopped ringing. He ended up doing a lot of work for brands in the years to follow, and whilst the money was good, it was completely unfulfilling for Ulrico, as he helped corporates sell more bank accounts and baby wipes.
As a side project, he then started a division called Habitat XR in 2016, which was all about using the VR technology to tell immersive wildlife and nature stories. Ulrico experienced much more personal fulfilment telling these stories, whilst being in the bush instead of studios and offices.
His first project was self-funding a shoot in Kenya’s Maasai Mara to film the great migration in VR. This project attracted a lot of interest from conservation NGOs to produce work for them. Fast forward a few years and Habitat XR is now Ulrico’s entire focus.
No surprise, Ulrico has always shown a keen interest in what’s next, having studied mechanical engineering and has a natural affinity for technology. Now, Habitat XR has taken him all over the world – 13 countries and counting – to film and showcase films for work. From the depths of filming underwater in the Maldives to shooting the baobab forests of Tanzania; capturing the plains of the Maasai Mara to filming black rhino in the sub-Saharan deserts of Chad.
Ulrico and his team have scaled the Himalayas, in an attempt to film something in VR that everyone warned them would be impossible: Snow Leopards. Yet, on the very last day, they managed to capture 3 wild Snow Leopards on camera. And if that wasn’t enough, the team were also fortunate enough to work with Portia De Rossi and Ellen DeGeneres through the Ellen Fund on an exciting project.
Ulrico and his team found themselves rubbing shoulders with the likes of Julia Roberts, Leonardo diCaprio and James Corden, having filmed wild Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda for a fundraiser Ellen was hosting, which they cracked an invitation to and got to immerse these A-List celebrities in the volcanic jungles of Rwanda through the power of VR.
For Ulrico and his team, going on all these incredible wilderness adventures has been a privilege, but what they have soon come to realise is that the these areas are not nearly as pristine as BBC documentaries or National Geographic reports will have us believe. According to Ulrico, every single place he has visited, has shown evidence of nature deteriorating as the world faces more and more unnatural pressure.
It’s great creating impact for 50 high net-worth individuals at a fundraising gala, but we want to democratise access to nature more broadly. So we launched Habitat Live as a 2-hour schools programme, where we take 50 headsets to schools to create a pop-up VR cinema, take them through VR stories we’ve produced of biodiversity loss, habitat loss and climate change, and workshop ways in which people can make every-day changes to effect a sustainable change in our environment’s health.
// Founder and CEO of Habitat XR, Ulrico Grech-Cumbo
Up until today, the uptake of headsets all around the world has been reasonable – certainly not a household device yet.
Even though South Africa is strong when it comes to development of content, 95% of the people we meet and talk to here have never experienced VR before. However, corporate South Africa was far quicker than most of the rest of the world to use VR in marketing. South Africa isn’t always ‘behind the times’.
// Founder and CEO of Habitat XR, Ulrico Grech-Cumbo
As the months of 2020 roll-over into 2021, what was once the domain of conservation NGOs, who early-on realised the immense power that “telepresence” affords to raise money, could very soon become more mainstream, taking over from where television left off, with the likes of Oculus Venues fast-forwarding us into the future.
From the makers of VR headsets, like the more affordable Oculus Go and more top-end Oculus Rift, Oculus Venues launched late 2018 and puts audiences in the front row seat of concerts, sporting events, comedy shows and music festivals. What makes Oculus Venues an exciting proposition, is the real-time conversation users can have with fellow attendees, as if they were both at the same event, sitting next to each other, all whilst actually being in the comfort of their own homes.
As an early pioneer in VR, Ulrico is standing at an exciting threshold, as the world prepares to take its next step from reality into virtual reality.
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