Captivity,  Technology

A Day Out At the Virtual Reality Zoo

A Zoo…in Virtual Reality?

I’ve decided to veer off from my usual solid-facts-only, science-communication style blog style for a week and take a post to explore the imaginary- what would it be like to visit a virtual reality zoo?

What Am I Thinking?

It began with last month’s theme of captivity. I investigated the ethics of zoos and aquariums and to be honest it took me on an emotional adventure I hadn’t anticipated.

I had begun with the intention of concluding that zoos provided a greater good. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised this was entirely selfish. I WANTED to find that conclusion to ease my own guilt at my love of visiting zoos.

If you followed through to the end and read my article on marine mammals, you’d have seen that I eventually came to realise that my love for dolphins had absolutely nothing to do with seeing them in captivity.

I was inspired and educated by books and tv shows and finally by seeing them in the wild. I longed to study marine biology long before I set foot into a marine park.

This brought me to the uncomfortable realisation that perhaps there really is no need for any animal to live in captivity purely for our entertainment.

And Then the Future Happened

I got to thinking, what are the alternative options? Then my husband received an Oculus headset as a gift, and it hit me- a virtual reality zoo.

I discovered that such a zoo has actually been trialled in Ghangzou, China. I couldn’t find a huge amount of information about its success, but it was the start of a thinking-journey for me. What would MY virtual zoo of the future look like?

Let’s step inside and take a look together…

Journey through the Virtual Reality Zoo

Between the Trees

We begin in the forest. You look up into a dense canopy and down into a layer of detritus, mostly sticks and leaves. To our right, a small brook trickles between the trunks of the trees.

A twig snaps.

Just ahead you can see movement between the trees.

It’s a grizzly bear! You watch as it forages for food.

Stay a while if you want. Watch him at work. You’re in no danger. It’s just you and him.

Move on when you’re ready.

Perhaps you’d like to take a walk in the Amazon rainforest, or watch as river dolphins navigate the trees in the flooded waters of the Yangtze river in Asia.

Across the Plains

The forests were mystical but some wide open spaces wouldn’t go amiss.

Stand on the plains of Africa and watch as the great wildebeest migration thunders on past your very eyes.

Watch as the wolves of Yellowstone make a kill, unencumbered by fences or onlooking visitors.

Close up of a gray wolf- essential in rewilding Yellowstone National Park

Under the Sea

Have you dreamed of diving on the great barrier reef or swimming through a squadron of manta rays?

Well, today’s your day. You can do both if you wish!

Glide along side sleek marine giants or watch the drama of the reef play out beneath you. Feel the adrenaline of getting up close and personal with a great white shark. Dive to the deepest depths to witness the spectacular flashes of colourful, bioluminescent jellies.

Up In The Air

When you’ve had your fill, take to the skies and soar alongside an eagle, hunt with an owl by night, seeing as it sees, or nest with a parenting albatross.

Take off with a flamboyance of flamingos or experience winter in a frozen penguin huddle.

Into the Microscopic

Perhaps our trip takes us where we cannot even see with our naked eyes- into the world of the microscopic.

Float alongside the plankton or experience the life of a bacteria.

The possibilities are, quite literally, endless.

Past, Present or Future

The Present

One limitation of the real-world zoo is that it can only really show us the world that exists today.

We can visit the animals that walk our planet today and experience the habitats they live in now.

The virtual reality zoo has no such problem.

The Past

The virtual reality zoo offers the opportunity to revisit the dinosaurs, or to walk among giant ground sloths or sabre tooth tigers.

We could revisit the ice age or witness a time when the Serengeti truly was as endless as its name suggests. Maybe we could go back to a time before deforestation hit the Amazon rainforest. We might even go so far back as the find the giant super-continent of Pangea connecting the Earth’s land masses.

The Future

Perhaps the future is bright…or maybe it isn’t.

The virtual reality zoo could give us the opportunity to see alternative versions of the future. Ones which stem from the actions we are taking and the choices we are making today.

What do our own hometowns become? How do our favourite spots change?

It could all be there to see and explore.

A Day Out…or a Day In?

A Day Out at the Virtual Reality Zoo

Part of the fun of the real-world zoo is a day out with friends and family. The virtual reality zoo doesn’t need to change that.

Perhaps it involves a visit to a large purpose-built arena where you can move about and interact with the environment.

Temperatures, sounds and smells could mimic the habitat in which you find yourselves.

Your visit could be different depending on whether you find yourself there at day or night and could change seasonally.

A Day In at the Virtual Reality Zoo

Alternatively, the virtual zoo could come to you.

Simply slip on a VR headset and the world is at your fingertips. No need to drive anywhere, plan ahead or even buy a ticket.

A School Day at the Virtual Reality Zoo

And if the zoo can come to you, why not bring it into schools?

Google Cardboard is already making its way into the classroom, but I imagine a future that goes further, bringing full “field trips” into the classroom.

The virtual reality zoo could be a tailored to key stage and topic. It could show them in the real time and real scale the wonders of the natural world without a crazy risk assessment (okay, let’s be real- there is ALWAYS a risk assessment) or coach sick bag in sight.

Hopefully one day they’ll get out there to see the real thing, but in the meantime our zoo could inspire the passion in them to make it happen.

In Conclusion

The best thing? No animal has suffered in the making of this zoo.

I realise technology has a LONG way to go before my dream can become (virtual) reality. Although it may be years away, I can’t help but be a little bit excited at the thought of what COULD be possible.

In a world where children could experience the best the Earth has to offer, they would find every reason to protect it. If people, young and old, saw with their own eyes what the future held, perhaps we’d have a real chance of influencing the decisions they make every day.

I believe this zoo could offer education in spades, raise awareness as never before and bring money to conservation at the same time. These are some of the key arguments for real-world zoos.

Would it live up to the experience of seeing one of these animals in real life? Well, that’s where we have to place the question to the public. People will vote with their feet and their wallets.

Still, it’s no bad thing to challenge what we believe to be normal and consider what the future could look like. Is the status quo always better? Or is there room for something new?

One Wild Thing

Again, I’m going to take a week to break with tradition. There is NO One Wild Thing suggestion for getting involved this week…because the subject doesn’t exist.

Instead, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the virtual reality zoo.

This month’s posts have been about technology in wildlife conservation. We’ve investigated the use of AI and drones and now VR. I’d say that besides the obvious, the over-arching theme has been that of thinking outside the box. We will only change the world by thinking the unthinkable.

On that basis, as we approach the end of the year, I’d also like to challenge you to think to the future. Let me know, what are your ideas for the future of wildlife conservation? What changes would you like to see?

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