Virtual and augmented reality arrive in the UAE

John Lillywhite, founder of Dubai- and Amman-based Project Pen, sets out his thoughts following a recent trip to Silicon Valley
Pixelbug, a Dubai-based AR technology firm, in the words of its founder Dany El-Eid, is a “multicultural team that takes millennials beyond reality with augmented and virtual technology.”
By John Lillywhite
Tue 17 May 2016 12:08 PM

There is a new technology on the horizon; a technology that promises to transport all of us into a world of new experiences, new places and new sensory experiences.

The “evangelists” of this new technology, as they refer to themselves, believe it represents an evolution in computer processing power that is more fundamental than the arrival of the smartphone.

The technology we are talking about is, of course, virtual reality and augmented reality.

Virtual reality (VR) invites viewers to experience and interact with virtual worlds through head-mounted displays such as the Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, the HTC Vive, Samsung Gear and the upcoming Sony Playstation VR. While there are many applications for VR – from medical, to military, to educational – its mainstream consumer focus is currently on video games. Think of it as the difference between playing the game and being ‘in the game’.

From movies such as The Lawnmower Man to The Matrix, VR has been foreshadowed in Hollywood and popular culture for generations. As a result, it is probably better understood as a concept than its twin cousin, augmented reality (AR).

The best way to imagine AR is as a digital overlay to the real-time physical world you inhabit; imagine Google maps traffic data visualised onto the road in front of you as you drive, or a map of the world that comes alive with rich 3D semantic data and imagery for each country when scanned over with a smartphone.

As a technical concept AR might not have the same visceral and emotional appeal of VR, but don’t be fooled: it is AR and not VR that will take a forecasted $120bn of the estimated $150bn addressable market in the US by 2020, according to a report by Digi-Capital and JP Morgan.

In short, AR could be worth almost four times as much in market capitalisation compared to VR, over the next four years.

Globally, the AR/VR technology and market are approaching an inflection point.

If the predictions are correct, all of us will be using AR and VR within the next few years in some way: be it on our smartphones, our gaming systems, or at specially constructed VR lounges, when interacting with products and even or when reading books.

So we thought this might be a good time to find out what has been happening in the cutting-edge industries of VR and AR right here in the UAE.

Pixelbug, a Dubai-based AR technology firm, in the words of its founder Dany El-Eid, is a “multicultural team that takes millennials beyond reality with augmented and virtual technology.”

Their latest flagship product, Colorbug, is described by Dany as “an AR application that brings kids colouring books to life.”

El-Eid says: “Kids colour in on a traditional piece of paper and then our software brings the drawing to life in exactly the same way the colours were applied on the piece of paper.”

In many ways, Colorbug is a perfect demonstration when it comes to the technical and emotional appeal of AR. Imagine a normal children’s colouring book, in this instance a penguin on a desert island somewhere. The type of thing we all grew up with. Only this colouring book has a hidden appeal – when an Ipad is hovered over the completed children’s colouring stencil, the penguin comes to life in 3D, complete with a music jingle and friendly voice-over on how penguins swim in the water.

“After working with multinational brands we saw that brand managers were having increasing difficultly to engage with a younger audience from print media,” comments El-Eid. “We noticed that by using our technology real-time on print, it significantly increased engagement - by some measures by more than 2x compared to traditional media.”

According to El-Eid, children in developed countries, such as the UAE, spend more than 30 percent of their daily leisure time on passive play, neither developing their motor skills nor imaginations. This has led to a situation where parents are attempting to ban the use of technology in the home or, at the very least, seriously curtail its use.

Having conducted pilot studies and working with schools and parent groups, the Pixelbug team believe they have found a happy alternative. AR is not designed to replace pen and paper and traditional motor skills used for colouring books, but to ‘augment’ them.

While it is difficult to audit Pixelbug’s statistics on engagement, there is no getting away from the fact that ColorBug is seriously impressive work.

Getting to the point where the company can launch consumer facing products has required both technical and business nous. According to El-Eid, Pixelbug has generated $1.5 million since its inception in 2013 by creating VR and AR experiences for multinational brands such as Nestle, Citibank, Sony and Pantene.

“It was like getting paid to do research and development (R&D),” jokes El-Eid. “On the one hand, it benefits the brand because they can show to the consumers that they are innovative, and a leading edge, and [that they are] keeping up with technology trends.

“At the same time, it benefits us because it allows us to de-risk having to invest ourselves in tech before knowing where the market fit is.”

Because AR and VR technologies are so nascent, with hardware and software evolving at an almost monthly pace, generating revenue and finding a market fit for companies in this sector has been crucial both in terms of survival and in terms of staying ahead of the development curve.

The good news is that El-Eid argues that being in the UAE has in many ways been an advantage.

“On the contrary, in terms of budgets being allocated to the use of this technology, we have been even more fortunate than places in the United States or elsewhere,” he adds.

El-Eid points out that because the technology behind AR and VR is built on open source their capabilities are not behind anywhere else in the world.

After exhibiting in Munich in 2013 and Melbourne in 2014, El Eid believes Pixelbug has played a role in “changing the perspective in regard to the Middle East being behind in technology adoption.”

He adds: “The company is actively involved in internationally building the community and commoditising more and more the technology because if we succeed, all of the players will succeed.”

Of course, Pixelbug is not alone.

Karim Saad, founder of Giga Works Virtual Reality Film Studio, shares much of El-Eid’s enthusiasm and his optimism for VR technologies in the UAE.

“There is no future of VR, VR is happening right now, and I can tell you for the next five years it will be the ‘in thing’,” says Saad. “There is so much to discover, and the technology is there and will become available for a lot of people.”

Based in Dubai, Giga Works is a VR film studio specialised in adapting real time motion footage into immersive 360-degree experiences. Using a specially optimised GoPro VR mount, the business has produced VR footage from go-karting, to a ride with Lebanese Rally Champion Joseph Hindi, to a trip down the water flume of the Wild Wadi Water Park - complete with water splashing against the camera, and a neatly induced sense of vertigo through the use of speed and first person perspective footage.

Gigaworks is also creating VR Booths for clients in shopping malls; adding sensors to seating, for example, to better replicate the Gforce of a car, and allowing visitors to enter into what Karim refers to as a “fourth dimension.”

For Saad, the two keys issues for VR in the UAE will not be access to finance or technology, but access to talent and good storytelling.

“In the UAE money is not always the biggest issue, as you can buy any camera or equipment, but you cannot have any director of photography you need,” Saad explains. “So this is the difficult part.

“The issue will [also] be content. In the case of VR, it is the storytelling and the experience that are the most important.”

He has a point: if the projects like the Aurora Virtual Reality Gaming Lounge in Downtown Dubai, founded by Owen Evans and scheduled to open later this year, are to reach beyond an audience of early adopters and technology enthusiasts, they will need to combine global content offerings in the VR space with culturally relevant experiences served up by a local content industry.

Thankfully, that is already happening.

“We selected Baba Zayed - a publication from Kalimat publishing house – as the first book to be used by VR technology as it enables children to learn a brief biography about the founder of the Union, His HighnessSheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan,” says Salim Omar Salim, director of sales and marketing at the Sharjah Book Authority [SBA].

Dubbed by local media as the “World’s First Virtual Reality Book”, the digital version enables children to engage with the history of the UAE and learn directly about its characters by wearing the 3D-VR glasses that are supplied with it.

Salim states that VR has been limited to games and film, and adds that he believes it will become a mainstay of classroom teaching and may even allow children in the UAE to steal an advance on their peers elsewhere in the world.

For Salim and the team at the SBA, the use of VR is part of a wider range of “wider literary initiatives that involve a range of advanced and innovative ideas to increase children’s interaction with books and instil within them a love of reading.”

It is clear that VR and AR technologies have already arrived in the UAE, and that these technologies are being applied within the local market in ways that are globally creative and competitive.

Local entrepreneurs, start-ups and cultural organisations have developed an early lead in what promises to be a truly disruptive mass-market technology.

“We’re unlocking a whole new world,” concludes El-Eid. “It is similar to the birth of the Internet.”

The signs are there, El-Eid might be correct. No pressure then.

About John Lillywhite:

John Lillywhite is the founder of the Arabic-English publishing start-up Project Pen. Before arriving in the UAE in 2016, John was Senior Analyst for HRH Prince Hassan and Chief Editor at Al Bawaba News in Amman, Jordan.

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