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Can VR help zoos bridge people with nature and not endanger wildlife?

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore expanded its experience with a new virtual reality ride, incorporating video and motion. This development may herald a future where zoos flourish through immersive simulations.

An AI-generated image of gorillas on a volcano in Rwanda wearing VR headsets. (Image by Alanah Nichole Davis via DALL·E)

This editorial article is a part of Entertainment Tech Month of Technical.ly’s editorial calendar.

Virtual reality didn’t come into existence until 1968 when Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull introduced the world to the first Virtual Reality Head Mounted Display. This technological leap occurred nearly 90 years after the Maryland Zoo was established by an act of the Maryland state legislature in 1876. Fast forward to 2023, and VR has expanded beyond gaming into zoos like the aforementioned one in Baltimore, which now offers the ability to transport individuals deep into the heart of Rwanda’s lush jungles.

For those venturing through what’s now called The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, this opportunity awaits within the footprint of the park near Penguin Coast. There, visitors can make contact with gorillas residing in their natural habitat via Wildlife Quest. It’s not as hands-on as feeding pumpkins to hippos, but this immersive experience is open to those aged 5 years and above, as well as an extra $8 per non-member. 

Wildlife Quest and its flagship film, “Gorilla Trek,” take viewers on a journey 10,000 feet up a dormant Rwandan volcano, where an endangered gorilla family lives. The immersive virtual reality experience at the outdoor theater pairs VR headsets with motion seats, providing guests with a sensation of motion without physical movement. Wildlife Quest involves visual stimulation, loud sounds, flashing lights, and multi-directional motion-enabled seating, so it’s unsuitable for pregnant women, the elderly or those with specific medical conditions.

According to the zoo, the immersive experience goes beyond just seeing and hearing animals; physically able guests can even catch a whiff of the wildlife, as mentioned by Maryland Zoo President and CEO Kirby Fowler.

“Our guests will be teleported to faraway places to observe animals in their native habitats,” Fowler said in a written statement. “It’s just like the fieldwork our Zoo conservationists do in real life.”

The Maryland Zoo is not alone in embracing the integration of wild animals into a new dimension of visitor interaction. President Rod Findley of Immotion, an immersive experience-focused company that worked with the Maryland Zoo on Wildlife Quest, underscored these experiences’ importance to conservation mission engagement in a 2019 blog post for the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. 

 “Virtual reality allows us to expand the stories we want to tell and build worlds that guests want to experience time and time again,” wrote Findley, whose company has worked with Zoo Atlanta, Milwaukee County Zoo and others to bring “Gorilla Trek” to a variety of audiences. “From swimming with whales and diving with sharks to riding the Congo River and witnessing nearby apes in their natural habitats, anything and everything really is possible, and it’s only a matter of time before we’re all experiencing it, one immersive second at a time.” 

Series: Entertainment Tech Month 2023

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