Immotion: Where VR Entertainment Meets Conservation Education
The company’s president explains how its immersive experiences can help zoos & aquariums to achieve their mission
by Charlotte Coates, Blooloop.com
Immotion, the global leader in immersive edutainment, combines entertainment and education by filming live action, stereoscopic 360 VR experiences and then syncing the camera motion in a VR headset with motion seats. This creates a fully immersive experience that transports guests to different worlds.
The firm brings its VR theatres to non-profit organisations like aquariums and zoos. The theatres can range from, at the smallest, four seats to installations as large as 48 seats. This combination of dynamic storytelling and cutting-edge high-tech solutions gives its partners a new dimension of impact to their mission, helping to inspire their visitors. Immotion’s VR experiences include Flight of the Mantas, Gorilla Trek, Shark Dive and Swimming with Humpbacks.
Immotion VR experiences can currently be found in over 65 locations around the world. This includes leading US institutions like the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Dallas Zoo, and Zoo Atlanta. In the UK, there are installations at Chester Zoo and Sea Life London Aquarium. There is also an Immotion VR theatre at Sydney Zoo in Australia. And the number of installations keeps growing.
Blooloop speaks to Immotion president Rod Findley to find out more about the company’s vision, the process of creating its unique VR experiences, and the impact that immersive edutainment can have.
Flight of the Mantas
Immotion’s latest immersive VR adventure, Flight of the Mantas, debuted at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) mid-year meeting in Oklahoma City in March 2023.
Flight of the Mantas takes viewers on a deep dive into the crystal-clear waters off the coast of Mozambique, as marine researcher Dr Andrea Marshall sets out to study and preserve the manta ray species there. The ” Manta Queen,” Dr Marshall is a co-founder of the Marine Megafauna Foundation. This is a non-profit organisation committed to the protection of marine species that are threatened with extinction and to the restoration of healthy oceans.
“We were very excited to be able to partner with the Marine Megafauna Foundation, the leading conservation organisation for manta rays and whale sharks,” says Findley. “We went to Mozambique to film these amazing animals on an expedition led by Andrea Marshall, following along as they were on a mission to tag manta rays.
“They just put a little tracker on them, which allows them to see exactly where they go. There are many issues threatening their habitats including encroachment by local fishermen. So, it’s important to understand where they go, where they mate, and where they give birth to limit activities that could interfere with their normal life cycle.
“We went to Mozambique, and we had this amazing shoot where we were swimming with these magnificent animals that sometimes have a wingspan of 14 to 16 feet. When you’re actually swimming with them, it’s quite astonishing. And then, seeing it in VR, you really feel like you’re there – it’s quite an incredible experience.”
Award recognition for Immotion
In February, the company won the 2023 Lumiere Award in the Best Use of VR category for its Gorilla Trek immersive experience. Findley collected the award alongside the film’s writer/producer/director Ken Musen, and editor/writer Howard Vu. The organiser of the awards, the Advanced Imaging Society, is a Hollywood-based association championing artistic and technical achievement in film, television and other media.
“We were honoured to win the Best Use of VR Lumiere Award from the Advanced Imaging Society for Gorilla Trek. It was unexpected; it’s a very august organisation and some of the other people honoured at that ceremony included Guillermo del Toro, Baz Luhrmann, Damien Chazelle… to be on stage with them was fantastic. And winning the Lumiere Award was great for the company because it brought us some mainstream recognition.”
Subsequently, Findley was invited to join the board of directors of the Advanced Imaging Society, to give more insight into VR and XR. Speaking after the appointment, he said:
“Immotion’s mission of pioneering immersive edutainment technology to spread the gospel of conservation dovetails perfectly with AIS’s mission to promote the advancement of cutting-edge entertainment technologies in the service of the artists’ vision. I look forward to contributing toward the further advancement of innovative XR.”
Creating Gorilla Trek
Talking about the creation of the award-winning Gorilla Trek, Findley says:
“Gorilla Trek was a unique piece for us. We were able to partner with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. They led us on this amazing mission into the mountains of Rwanda. We were embedded right there with this family of gorillas, and we managed to capture the interpersonal interactions within the family.”
The two-week trip into Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains was meticulously planned over six months by Immotion’s VR team under the guidance of Dr Tara Stoinski, CEO and chief scientific officer of the Fossey Fund. They observed the complex social and family dynamics of a family of mountain gorillas there by visiting them every day.
The reception to the piece has been overwhelmingly positive, he adds:
“We see kids trying to try to touch the gorillas; they’re just absolutely transported. And then with the parents, there is this emotional level where they feel like they are right there with the gorillas, but they also have a better understanding of what’s going on with these gorillas in their natural habitat.
“They get to see cute baby gorillas, but there is also a strong message.”
Immotion uses VR to make a real connection
VR is becoming increasingly popular in the attractions industry as visitors want to feel more immersed in experiences. It also makes an excellent educational tool, helping guests to connect with the conservation messages that zoos and aquariums are trying to communicate, explains Findley:
“What we do is build on the conservation and education work the institutions do, by giving the guests a completely different and unique view into the world of these animals. We create experiences that highlight animals that visitors aren’t going to find in zoos and aquariums. You’re not going to see a humpback whale or a manta ray, for example, or mountain gorillas.
“For instance, in Gorilla Trek, you’re embedded with this family of mountain gorillas. You’re sometimes just inches away from them. That proximity, plus the interpretation of the behaviour explained by our experts to guests in the narration, gives guests this unprecedented experience with these animals.
“Then, when you add the stereoscopic VR and the seats that sync with the camera movements, you’re completely transported to that world. It has so much more resonance and impact because of that immersion.”
A lasting impact
According to Findley, neurological studies have shown that when people experience something in VR, they remember it in a different way than they would if they were watching a video:
“In essence, the memories are stored in a different place in your brain than if you were just seeing a flat video. It registers in your brain as an experience, so it’s filed away with the places you’ve been and the things you’ve done, rather than just being remembered as a video that you saw. So, there’s an extra level of engagement and empathy because people feel like they have been there.”
Gorilla Trek is just a six-minute film but, he says, it has a strong impact on people:
“It can make them think a bit more about conservation. We’re giving them educational content throughout. But what we really want is for the experience to have a lasting effect on people so that when they leave, they’ll think a bit differently about conservation. They’ll be thinking about what can be done to preserve the rainforests where these gorillas live.
“It’s a unique medium, and it is extremely useful for education and conservation because of those elements. If you’re watching a video, it’s very easy to tune it out. But in a VR experience like this, you’re there in the experience. You can’t tune it out.”
Immotion also provides additional interpretive material so that guests can learn more about the animals that feature in the VR content.
The story is the focus for Immotion’s team
Speaking about where the team begins when creating a new VR experience, Findley stresses that the conservation and education elements are key. It’s not virtual reality with conservation messaging simply tacked on afterwards; it only works if the animals and their ecological story are the focus from the beginning.
“We always start with the conservation and education elements. When we are selecting our next topic, first we do our research and look at what we think could work and then we also reach out to our partners to ask them what they would like us to focus on, taking into account what they think their visitors would connect with.
“Then once we’ve established what we’re doing, it’s a matter of teaming up with the right conservation team and creating the most dynamic story.”
VR enhances the challenges of wildlife filming
It’s not, however, straightforward wildlife cinematography.
“We also have to look at it through the lens of VR production. How can you capture these animals in VR? It’s different, and there are some challenges. For instance, David Attenborough can go out with a 1000-millimetre lens, and you feel like you’re right there, close to the lion. But we have to actually be there, two feet away from the lion. So, you have to factor in those elements.
“The beauty of VR is that you feel you’re right there next to the animal. So, we have to strategise as to how we can capture the most dynamic story and the best experiences.”
“For example, we’re soon going to be shooting the Serengeti migration. What we want to do is to place a camera, low on the ground, so we can feel the power of the wildebeest herds. Or, when the wildebeests are trying to cross the river while avoiding the crocodiles, we want to have a remote submersible camera that can capture the view from the river. It’s about crafting this story that’s not only educational but also entertaining and dynamic.
“And then, beyond that, there is the standard nature of wildlife cinematography. You just don’t know what the animals are going to do! You often have to go back to square one and do it again, and just wait to catch things at the perfect moment. But we’ve been very lucky so far, and we have a great team that understands the process of documentary filmmaking. Ken Musen, our creative director, has won three Emmys for his work.
“I think our team has helped to define the grammar of VR documentary filmmaking. Very few people are doing it the same way that we are.”
Immotion works in partnership with zoos & aquariums
While the VR theatres themselves are a turnkey attraction for operators, the company still works in close partnership with its clients, particularly when it comes to planning upcoming content.
“We aim to create one new piece of content each year for zoos and aquariums. So, Flight of the Mantas was the piece this year for aquariums and we’re doing the Serengeti migration for zoos. One of the other pieces we’re exploring now for our zoo partners is something to do with polar bears. That’s something that everyone’s interested in and they’re very endangered. On the aquarium side, we’re in the process now of reaching out to our partners to talk to them about what they would like to see next year.”
The company’s list of partners continues to grow. Recent new US clients include the National Aquarium in Baltimore and Denver Zoo.
“We’re also continuing to expand globally,” adds Findley. “We’re going into Sea Life Bangkok, for instance. Previously, we had been focused largely on the US and in the UK. Now we’re expanding beyond that into Europe and the Asia Pacific region.”
The benefits of adding an immersive VR experience
This growth can be attributed, he says, to the numerous benefits that an Immotion VR experience can bring to a zoo or aquarium:
“What’s great for our zoo and aquarium partners is that our experiences work in so many different ways for them. On the guest experience side, zoos and aquariums are always looking for opportunities to increase the depth of their education and conservation missions. Plus, they’re looking for ways to put in more interactive experiences and attractions, to offer something new and unexpected. They’re looking for ways to use technology to bring more dimensions to their mission.”
“To be able to combine these two elements in an attraction that’s entertaining and a real crowd-pleaser makes it an appealing proposition.
“On the operational side, our installations are modular, which means they can go from four seats to 48 seats. It’s so easy to tuck them into locations. A lot of these aquariums and zoos don’t necessarily have a lot of real estate. They don’t have to build a whole theatre, you can put in just six or 12 seats into a corner of a location. Or, we even have drop-in container-based theatre solutions.
“Finally, on the business side, we put everything in at no cost to the institution. That means that they can start generating ancillary revenue right away and the barrier to entry is very low. It ticks a lot of boxes for aquariums and zoos.”
Technology that supports the mission
For Findley, virtual reality technology is simply the tool that Immotion uses right now to present its experiences. This means that, as technology evolves, the firm can also look at adding new ways to immerse guests.
“We are known as a VR company, but really, we like to think of ourselves as an immersive experience company. Currently, the way we’re presenting our 360° stereoscopic experiences is with VR headsets. But we’ve also been expanding our thinking into how we could present them as more of a shared experience. For instance, with attractions like dome theatres, you get that same immersion, but people are experiencing it together. It’s more of a group experience.
“At the end of the day, the technology is secondary to our mission. We use technology to tell fantastic stories and to enhance the conservation message that these zoos and aquariums are focused on. But it doesn’t have to be in a headset. The most important thing for us is the quality content and the impact that it has.”
NOTE: This article was 0riginally published in Blooloop.com on September 6, 2o23
Read and listen to the full article here — Immotion: Where VR Entertainment Meets Conservation Education