July 21, 2015 — Technology, the disruptor of business models, the destroyer of tradition. The saviour of, it seems, just about everything. Uber “killed” taxis with no cars, Airbnb is “killing” hotels with no rooms and Facebook is “killing”, well, no one is quite sure yet. And herein lies the problem with both the digital industry’s approach to the world, and those outside who see it as a terrifying monster hellbent on destroying everyone and everything in its path.

Technology is so often viewed as the disruptor that the relationship between those in “traditional industries” and those in “new” industries is poisoned from the beginning. AR and VR feels like that in the zoo and museum space at the moment. It’s either adopt and submit or get left behind and die - and that is simply not the case.

For some within the zoos and museums space the brave new world of virtual reality and augmented reality represent all that is wrong with the new generation of digitised, download-happy kids. Others see it as a golden opportunity to reconnect with the young generation who no longer visit these spaces and build a whole new way to exhibit. So who is right? The hipster generation of AR or the educators with 50 years under their belt? The answer, quite rightfully, is neither.

Augmented reality technology does not hold a magic bullet to garnering interest in young people (ask any broke app developer), and on the flip-side museums and zoos have to understand they are starting to lose a generation of young people who demand interaction from any experience, whether that be TV, games or live experience. Zoos and museums are of course not alone in this, teens and twenty-somethings don’t watch TV, they don’t buy DVDs, they demand compacted content on demand and they don’t suffer being advertised to. And they especially don’t like killing trees to do it.

The answer to the above is actually a lot more boring and a lot simpler to plan for if we take everyone’s ego off the table. Technology ultimately will only enhance the education experience in a zoo environment, adding a layer of richness to a situation that was previously not possible. It will be a collaborative 20 mile march, one that will be assessed and informed by people with a vision for experience, those with an understanding of technology and how to educate effectively. Those with experience in museums and zoos who understand why AR and VR can help them engage but that without a reason to be it will always fall short. Those who understand its successful application will be the real winners. 

It will not be the vision of fast-paced creative destruction that some depict, it will be an iterative process for people in it for the long haul co-designed by the very people who are supposedly at loggerheads with each other. We will all make mistakes, but the commitment and desire to make it work will ultimately see more right decisions than wrong ones over the next 3 years. 

Or as our COO very rightfully stated in a meeting last week - we may have to kiss a few frogs before we find a prince.

Here’s why we feel augmented reality and virtual reality can ultimately help zoos to increase interest in the natural world:

Immersive Learning

Allowing people to control and explore the subject in hand is an incredibly powerful tool. AR on mobile devices such as iPad or Android allow users to control and adapt the amount of information they require at will. Mobile devices allow the AR experience to be immersive, rich media and triggered by everything from cola cups to pictures of Rhinos outside of the enclosure. 

Up Close and Personal 

Nothing will ever replace the magical feeling of meeting a rhino called Tony in real life (thanks Toronto Zoo!) but how many people are actually able to experience this? How do you allow people to learn more about an animal that is not at the zoo, or even extinct? AR can deliver those animals to users in an instant, giving real time information on them, even quizzing the user about what to do next to help their survival.

Add Physical and Digital

AR’s ability to overlay digital content on a real world view is invaluable for an industry that has no shortage of physical space and a moving target of a subject. Gaining real time information about an animal that is 75 metres from a fence, or even hiding for hours a day is a problem. AR on a mobile device or wearable can overlay live information on animals simply by looking at them or the environment they're in. Live Tony the rhino stats anyone?

Return on Investment 

Many digital augmented reality experiences that we create actually have a compelling ROI behind them which zoos can use to generate profit for the running of the institution itself. Our systems have had charging for entrance and charging for HD snapshots attached them to generate income. 

Take the zoo out of the zoo

The point that strikes fear into institutions everywhere, many have been ejected from meetings for even suggesting it. But what if the zoo’s brand loyalty could work outside the space and keep delivering entertainment and education to its followers? What if allowing people to access the institution outside of the institution encouraged more people to go back to the institution? 

Less Food

Tony the Rhino eats approximately 1% of his own bodyweight in food per day. You do the math.