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Where Nature Comes Alive: Immersive Technology with Habitat XR

Habitat XR talks to

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality has always had a volatile market presence even though its potential is unlimited. Having worked in domains that use VR/AR for learning and entertainment, I had yet to see any enterprise focus solely on immersive technology until Habitat XR.

I got talking with the dynamic CEO of Habitat XR Ulrico Grech-Cumbo regarding the future immersive technology and he had a few interesting things to say. Here is our conversation:

1. What is Habitat XR? It says that it is an impact-driven company, can I know more about what that means?

We are a conservation organization that looks like a content company - that's the easiest way to explain it.

We use the tremendous power of immersive storytelling tools like VR, AR, and holograms to bring people closer to nature, to understand it more, to love it more and thus protect it more.

Habitat XR Notes on Nature

"Impact" means that our focus is storytelling for laser-focused positive outcomes for our natural environment.

2. What is the state of VR and AR as of today?

I've been in this for a decade now, and it always ebbs and flows. Media tends to skew (usually negatively) people's perceptions of these technologies but they are technically better, cheaper, and more valuable than they've ever been.

Apple Vision Pro uses spatial computing

What we've seen is lots of companies who couldn't figure out their "why" soon enough disappear from the landscape which makes people think the technologies themselves have fizzled, but the opposite is true. Apple recently (and finally!) announcing their entry to the "spatial computing" world is a massive validation of this.

a. Why isn't VR and AR more ubiquitous and commercially adopted on a consumer level?

I don't think global players in this world have done a good enough job together at proving its value. It's a symptom of the Silicon Valley mentality of not having to create value - just the illusion of value, which attracts funding. The reality is, we've put our own experiences on the faces of at least half a million people and each of them has had an "ah ha!" moment after watching.

Time after time people tell me, "I was a skeptic of VR before but now I get it -- and might buy a device". It's an experiential medium that cannot rely on people imagining what it's like -- they have to experience it, and not enough marketing has focused on getting people to empirically play!

There are also lots of misconceptions about the technology -- the most common one being that it's a gaming device. It can be a gaming device, just like a PC can be, but it can be so much more.

VR is an experiential medium that cannot rely on people imagining what it's like -- they have to experience it.

b. Was Google Glass too early for its time?

Yes, but also the same issue as above. As someone who has been selling services linked to the hardware, I can tell you that there are no results until someone actually experiences what you're offering.

Google Glass

That's the downside of working on new things people have no reference point for. The obligation is on us to create the reference point.

c. What role do Haptics play in VR and AR?

The central selling point of immersive technologies is that a person experiences immersion -- or as we call it, "telepresence". Haptics is a way to further convince our minds that our bodies are physically in an alternate world.

Person using a haptics device

They - like other senses including smell and hearing - play a massive role, particularly because it is tactility that "proves" to our brains (which think that digital things are exclusively intangible), that the virtual world is a real world.

d. What is the future of VR and AR and What is the role of Habitat XR in shaping it?

I think the future is just about using the right tool for the job. VR and AR and holograms and all other "new media" are just new tools that can sometimes do a better job of solving a specific problem than the tools that came before it. It's not ALWAYS the best tool, that's why I said what I did above about "finding value" - we need to use the right tool for the specific job. Which means defining, specifically, what your problem is.

In our context, flat linear nature documentaries used to be how people got to bear witness to pristine wilderness, right? Either that or go to a zoo. Immersive technologies make the journey into the Himalayas or jungles of Rwanda so much more personal, visceral, educational, and at the same time far more ethical than caging animals at zoos.

We are hyper-niched, and I think that's what the future of these technologies needs to happen. We used to try to be everything to everyone, but it's a quick way to get eaten up by your business model (and competition).

In our early years, we did everything from marketing to mining, consumer retail goods to hotel maintenance until I realized that the intersection of my personal passions and the power of these formats could coalesce into something truly valuable for the planet.

3. Will Habitat XR ever venture into Healthcare?

It's pretty widely accepted in medical circles now that access to nature -- even virtually -- is hugely beneficial to our overall health and recovery. A few years ago the British health department was the biggest commissioner of nature VR content in the world. So in this way, yes - we have and will continue to find a case for immersive nature experiences in the world of healthcare.

4. What about Aerospace? As a structural design engineer in the Aerospace domain, Aircraft Design can use VR and AR learning methods.

Well, it's another hyper-niche. The trick with engineering (and some medical) applications is that you need a very high degree of accuracy, depending on where in the pipeline you're going to use it.

Headset, controller and now hand tracking have all improved a lot over time so I think we'll continue to see growth in these industries. But again, the importance lies in deciding where these technologies can help speed a process up or make it better, where a preceding tool cannot compete.

5. What is your top 5 movie list? Did any of them inspire you to become the entrepreneur you are today?

My ultimate #1 is Gladiator - as far as I'm concerned it's the only live-action movie in history that scores full marks across directing, acting, screenplay, dialogue, cinematography, story, and music.

Being an African-based nature guy I've got to include the original Lion King on there. I am a bit of a Star Wars nerd but in terms of inspo, I am equally taken with the founding story of the companies that rose behind the success of the Star Wars films.

George Lucas had to build the tools that didn't exist for him to achieve his vision. He built a team of people who were rebellious and experimentative, had complementary skills, and were all aligned with this huge lofty goal he had.

What came out of the process of inventing while producing was landmark companies like Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic, Pixar, and Skywalker Sound which are, 35 years later, still arguably the best companies in their respective fields in the world.

It is a serious thing to build one good company but to be the founder of a slew of companies like that, an Elon Musk level of success, is something I don't think Lucas gets enough credit for.

5. Have people from Hollywood approached you yet? I'm sure Bob Iger or Kevin Feige would love your tech to make the MCU more immersive!

The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Fund

We've worked with Ellen DeGeneres and done some conservation fundraising work in Hollywood with a slew of A-listers who were VR virgins (VRgins?). There are some MCU immersive experiences out there (not ours), although in my opinion are not nearly strategic enough to justify their existence and the presumably insane cost of production.

6. Where do you see Habitat XR 5 years down the line?

What would be your ideal vision for it? While we increase our team's technical and creative prowess ongoingly, it's all about where we can make the biggest objective impact. I believe that this lies in the field of environmental culture change (I deliberately do not call it "environmental education").

Ulrich with his Habitat XR colleagues

We have grown three-fold in the last year and while growth isn't our ultimate goal, I have traveled enough to see plainly that the worst predictions of our planet's future are true if we don't do something about it fast.

The Future of Immersive Technology

VR/AR is a space that has not quite hit the mainstream but visionaries like Ulrico Grech-Cumbo are pushing the frontiers of immersive technology. His focus is mostly on saving our beautiful blue planet by using immersive experiences to raise awareness and spark a deep, visceral connection with nature.

Habitat XR isn't just offering nature documentaries in VR; they're transporting audiences to the heart of rainforests, scaling icy mountains alongside endangered snow leopards, and diving into coral reefs teeming with life. These experiences bypass the limitations of flat screens and slide shows, fostering empathy and understanding on a personal, transformative level.

Grech-Cumbo believes that this shift in perspective is key to environmental action. Immersive technology holds the power to reawaken our awe of the natural world, inspiring us to become its protectors and stewards. In this way, Habitat XR isn't just shaping the future of immersive technology; they're shaping the future of our planet, one awe-inspiring experience at a time.



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