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UAE well set for VR Revolution

By Emma E Forrest

While VR location-based entertainment is big, the technology is also getting traction in the business and the public sector

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I’m under attack from hordes of zombies and I’m fighting to survive.

I shoot one after another but their numbers are increasing as they swarm towards me, growling and drooling as my field of vision fills with ominous green scratch marks. It’s only minutes before I wave my plastic gun in the air in surrender, and staff at Dubai’s Hub Zero gaming centre relieve me of my virtual reality (VR) headset and get me out of the game.

While my shrieking had drawn a group of concerned school children to the booth, the experience is one an increasing number of people want to enjoy.

“There is definitely growth and more interest in the market for VR and AR but still, it is the public sector driving it here as of now,” says Shujat Mirza, Dubai Chapter president of the global VR/AR Association, which supports VR and AR stakeholders in the region and has hosted forums at events at Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Centre and ioTX Dubai.

I’m told I’m not the first person to have made a show of themselves while experiencing one of the truly interactive virtual reality games at Hub Zero. VR immerses users in a 360-degree simulated reality environment and it’s surprisingly believable. The VR experience is even more intense at Ghostbusters-themed THE VOID, which recently moved to Hub Zero from The Beach, and incorporates sound, touch and smell into the experience.



This sort of VR entertainment experience is often people’s introduction to this immersive technology, not least because the business world has not yet fully cottoned on to its benefits.

When VRstudios, the US firm that created the turnkey, fully interactive VR attractions at Hub Zero, first started, it found location-based entertainment (LBE) industries the most receptive sector.

“We found that many commercial enterprises will take time to evolve their operations to include immersive technologies and truly understand the impact VR can have on lowering cost, improving profit, shortening time to market, reducing change orders, and improving customer satisfaction and competitiveness,” says T Ron Davis, VRstudios’ chief marketing officer. “Meanwhile, the location-based entertainment world was beating on our door. LBEs understand the value and see it as a key element of bringing guests to locations to experience something they cannot get at home, in many cases something exclusive to the venue.”

It’s also an easy way to renew the experience of the customers, says Jean-Marc Bled, general manager, entertainment zone in leisure and entertainment operations at Meraas Holding, which runs Hub Zero: “Imagine if you have three or four different media then your customers can come three or four times, for a minimal cost because, of course, changing a media costs much less than changing a full ride or attraction.”

In the UAE, LBE is creating a buzz around VR but the technology is also getting traction in the business and the public sector, as reflected in the number of VR and augmented reality (AR) products (which lay digital images over the user's environment) showcased during February’s Innovation Month.



The market for VR and AR in the Middle East and Africa market is expected to increase from a value of $181.59 million in 2017 to $6 billion in 2020, according to international analysts International Data Corporation (IDC). While until now, consumer spending has accounted for most of that, IDC predicts that from this year, the consumer sector will give way to B2B segments including distribution and manufacturing.

“During Innovation Month, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment used VR to educate the public on how our environment has changed and will change, through an immersive and interactive experience," says Mr Mirza. "The content of the VR experience displayed the past, present, and future of UAE.”

Meanwhile, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) has enlisted leading AR solution and hardware provider DAQRI to develop a "smart" helmet and glasses for its engineers, using AR software created by Dubai-based company Takeleap.

There are myriad business applications of VR, from car test drives to remote surgery, but Mr Mirza sees the most potential in the gaming, entertainment and real estate sectors in terms of growth, content and reach. He also sees promise in the education sector, retail and tourism.

Consumer brands are starting to get in on the act. Emirates and Etihad both have 360 VR products, and in 2016 hotel group Jumeirah introduced a VR app that allows guests to take an AR/VR tour of its properties using Google Cardboard goggles and their smartphones. More recently Ikea launched VR pop-up stores in Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco, to create an immersive shopping experience for customers who can’t visit bricks and mortar Ikea stores, and claims that has increased footfall by 19 per cent.



Part of VR’s growth is down to the reduced cost of the hardware required, making it much more accessible to developers, down from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds. VR equipment is also now more affordable for consumers, and consumer awareness has increased as a result. By attaching a VR headset like the Google Cardboard to their smartphone, anyone can create a VR or AR experience for as little as $15. Spending on AR/VR hardware elements is forecast by IDC to grow from $118m in 2016 to reach more than $3.2 billion in 2020.

It is consumer interest that is set to drive the industry, says Mr Mirza. “B2C will allow mass adoption and B2B will attract special projects, which will give the VR industry a boost and that necessary PR. Enterprise solutions will drive investments, and consumer-driven content will create acceptance and reach.”

Content is also crucial to driving the development of VR technology, he says. “In the hardware aspect, we already have global players that have launched products and are constantly upgrading, so we should just embrace and import from the already established big players but the key for market adoption is regional content. There are UAE-based VR filmmakers who are working on projects and have already created some amazing story-telling.”

Hassan Kiyany is one of these UAE content providers. He runs an agency that develops content for AR and VR, and most recently developed an immersive tour of UAE schools for the Ministry of Education.

“We've been working with some key government and private sectors helping them embrace VR in their marketing efforts and public awareness,” he says. “I believe VR/AR provides a new dimension on how we can engage, educate and entertain audiences.”



Government initiatives are helping to push the technology in the UAE, says Ashwin Venkatchari, research director for the Middle East, Africa and Turkey, for IDC. He gives the example of the Dubai Future Accelerator, a government programme in which cutting-edge technology companies from the West develop a product to address a specific challenge for a government entity, that they can then go on to launch in the business sector in the UAE.

It’s inevitable that Dubai adopts VR, says Mr Mirza, in order to fit with its smart vision. “I think VR and AR together will need to be embraced with a lot of attention here in UAE. If Dubai has to be the smartest city in the world VR, MR [mixed reality] and AI [artificial intelligence] must be at the core of it.”

He says the hype alone has inspired government entities into “talking and embracing VR as a technology which is going to improve human communication, create new career opportunities and attract investments”.

The challenge to developing VR in the UAE is getting big global players including HTC Vive, Apple or Google to take the market a bit more seriously, says Mr Mirza. He suggests they have an R&D presence in the region, to help groom local content talent to galvanise regional solutions which will encourage market adoption. The fact that US AR/VR company EON Reality, which offers products such as its Virtual Trainer, has opened a studio and training facility in collaboration with Higher College of Technology Dubai is a great step towards building a skilled workforce in the next years, he says.

The market also needs to evolve into a place where content or VR solutions for any sector can be made here by local players rather than copying what is being done in in the US or in the UK, says Mr Mirza. “Creative and imaginative minds who understand the applicability, usability and power of VR technology need to be given a platform to showcase their talent.” He says the annual GITEX Technology Week does this to an extent but the VR/AR industry needs a dedicated event.



He also suggests the region needs more support for local VR/AR start-ups which are creating regional content and coming up with good solutions for brands and corporations.

It’s something that Mr Kiyany has identified, which is why he recently kick started a hands-on storytelling MR lab to introduce young talent to the MR/VR/AR arena.

“We need more dedicated VR/AR labs, events and gatherings, to exchange the work and knowledge among everyone,” he says. “Companies would learn the best use of it. We lack access to the latest technology, hardware and software in general compared to the West. But at the same time we’ve got huge interest from everyone in the region to push for it.”

Mr Bled says once VR takes hold, progress could be rapid, especially in the games industry. “By 2020, I can see massive progress in this technology and streamlining as well. In the video game business it’s going to be massive,” he says. “Once really big players like XBox or Sony or Microsoft invest big money to do a proper VR game, it’s going to be a game changer.



Airlines add VR entertainment for passengers to enjoy, explore, and relax

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In early 2015, the Australian flag carrier Qantas Airways, in partnership with Samsung, brought Virtual Reality (VR) to its first-class cabins and lounges. This event — which was the first of its kind in the industry back then — enabled  the passengers to land on Hamilton Island, dive the Great Barrier Reef, and climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge; all while sitting in  their seats comfortably.

Three years ago, that was a head-turning experience; but nowadays, airline companies are fiercely competing against each other to further distinguish themselves in their use of the latest technological breakthroughs including VR, as incorporating new tech to enhance the passengers’ experience has become a must. It has turned into a service that goes beyond onboard entertainment options to accompany the passengers in their journey right from the very beginning until their arrival in the flight’s waiting lounge.

According to Shujat Mirza, UAE Chapter president at the global industry association for Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality Association (VRARA) that connects solution providers with brands and customers, VR is a game changer. “It is not only changing the way we will consume content, but it also allows us to interact with this world better,” he said in an interview with Wamda.

Examples from around the world

Aiming to generate higher footfall and boost their sales, airlines around the planet have spared no effort to take full advantage of the best of VR. In early 2017, Lufthansa passengers were offered the opportunity to try out the innovative Avegant Glyph video glasses in the Business Lounge. “Entertainment electronics play an important role in travel. We have selected an impressive innovation from the incredible amount of new products available. Our guests can try these out informally and in a relaxed atmosphere,” said Dr. Torsten Wingenter, senior director digital innovations at Lufthansa. The carrier has also tried a creative way to sell upgrades to Premium Economy passengers at the departure gate. By inviting passengers to put on VR glasses and texamine, via a 360-degree view, how the Premium Economy seat and cabin look, Lufthansa hoped that the passengers who had booked in Economy class would consider purchasing an upgrade. Those who decided to upgrade their seats were able to pay the surcharge directly at the gate. According to what Lufthansa reports, it has already achieved considerable success in upgrading passengers to Premium Economy using VR in the U.S.

Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM) has also adopted a similar approach. By putting on the KLM’s Flight Upgrader VR glasses, the passengers can upgrade his budget flight to a KLM flight, virtually.  By using the Flight Upgrader app and putting the smartphone in a cardboard (the VR headset,) the passenger can start enjoying all the benefits of an all-inclusive flight package. Passengers can then watch a movie on KLM’s entertainment system; use the free KLM media app to read their favorite newspaper; enjoy what a caring crew feels like; and indulge in a real, free, delicious meal.

Since August 2017, and in partnership with startup SkyLights, Air France has been conducting trials of an immersive entertainment system with VR headsets that allow customers to entertain themselves by watching 3D and 2D motion pictures  or TV series in a completely private movie theatre of their own that isolates them entirely from whatever is happening within the cabin.

SkyLights was founded in 2015 by David Dicko, a former Air France executive and pilot; Florent Bolzinger, a VR enthusiast; Laurence Fornari, a video streaming former entrepreneur; and Rateb Zaouk, an operations powerhouse. The company’s objective is to exploit the latest cinematic VR technology to do an extreme makeover on the inflight experience.

The UAE is a regional leader

In line with the global trends, the UAE is on a quest to raise the bar when it comes to embracing tech and innovation across all industries; and, of course, aviation is included.

Last April, Etihad Airways trialed SkyLights Aero VR entertainment technology at its First Class Lounge and Spa and Business Class Premium Lounge at Abu Dhabi International Airport’s Terminal 3. The purpose of the trial, which lasted for a whole  month, was to collect feedback from customers to identify the future of the airline in terms of entertainment aspects presented at Abu Dhabi’s Midfield Terminal. Speaking on the trial, Linda Celestino, Etihad Airways vice president guest experience and delivery, said, in a press release: “We are constantly investigating ways to enhance our service and hospitality offering on the ground through innovative technology and customization. By conducting trials such as this, we already understand that modern travelers expect more information and seek increasingly connected and immersive experiences which engage and entertain them on every level. Gone are the days when a premium lounge experience just meant comfortable design, luxurious amenities, and fine dining.” According to her, such a technology would provide more personalization and end-to-end entertainment solutions across all customer demographic.

That was not the first occasion on which Emirates Airline explored this realm of technology; the carrier, in its pursuit of establishing itself as a pioneer in this domain, had also trialed SkyLights theatre headsets last March in its Dubai airport lounges for an immersive cinematic experience. The headsets were tested in the Business Class lounge in Concourse B last April and in the First-Class lounge in concourse B this May.

The experience provided the travelers with 3D and 2D content via a fixed screen equipped with a wide-angle view and Skylight theatre headset, along with a wholly HD viewing experience. The headset is characterized by its built-in sound and video that allow customers to submerge  themselves within whatever they are watching. An assortment of content of films and documentaries will be available, including 360-degree videos.

In an interview with Wamda, an Emirates spokesperson reported that this complimentary entertainment service had received positive feedback. He also mentioned that if the trial continues to be well-received through customer assessment, the airline plans to roll out the experience across all its seven lounges in Dubai. “Having assessed a number of concepts and suppliers, introducing the immersive theatre and innovative SkyLights headsets in our lounges has proved to be a valuable experience,” the spokesperson said. He explained that the carrier is constantly searching for ways to surprise and delight its customers through its premium services and offers that includes a wide range of gourmet cuisine, shower facilities, health spa, and dedicated children’s play areas. “Leveraging technology for an immersive cinematic experience was the clear next step,” the spokesperson said. Emirates’ VR usage won’t be limited to entertainment, as it is examining different aspects of the business in whichVR technologies are applicable to improve the customer’s experience whether still on the ground or flying in the air.

Mirza confirms the fact that VR can transcend the boundaries of entertainment and go far beyond. He believes that although Emirates and Etihad Airlines have launched VR entertainment in their lounges at the airports, there is still much more that can be done in other domains. For instance, VR can be utilized to engage with customers. This technology can be also quite valuable to train employees, as he added, “We did hear Emirates Airline is investing in an AR headset for it is crew which again was very good news, but we are yet to see a full used scenario.”

Where and how to use it?

During Arabian Travel Market, one of the major regional conferences for the travel industry, Emirates Airline equipped their couches with VR to take the show’s visitors on a journey. Mirza believes that the same could be used to offer travelers an immersive experience of a top-class business or leisure travel to enable them to have a virtual tour through which they review the comfort or the overall specifications  of a certain seat onboard without even having to buy a ticket, which is very similar to what Lufthansa has done. This would encourage the customers, or inspire them, to book with this specific airline for a service or experience it provides. VR in airports will ease layover and transform the airports into destinations travelers prefer and long for.

Numerous startups could be involved

Numerous startups have been developing VR products in the UAE, but not specifically targeting the airlines industry. These include GigaWorks which is a VR film and content making agency; TAKELEAP, a startup that produces both VR and AR content; Eventagrat, which develops regional content; and PearQuest, an agency that develops immersive content. According to Mirza, brands are still depending on outsourcing VR requirements to other players in the US, Europe, and the UK — and this explains both carriers’ (Etihad and Emirates) involvement with SkyLights. However, “the UAE government has been very encouraging and leading initiatives to boost the homegrown VR/AR ecosystem,” Mirza concluded.

The future of on board-tech

According to Emirates, technology is reshaping the airline industry; and the carrier is embracing newfangled tech to interact with its customers in unprecedented ways. “For instance, we have been working on new technology initiatives with our aviation partners and stakeholders to fast-track projects that will enable us to overcome challenges and improve the Emirates customer journey at our Dubai hub,” the spokesperson said. Consequently, travelers will begin to experience a smoother and more satisfying airport experience with the implementation of initiatives like biometric technology and modern automated border control (ABC) gates. The company is also working on building the world’s first sector-wide Experimental (X) Lab to help build a new transportation paradigm.

Mirza is convinced that VR will disrupt enterprises and eventually alter the training and learning curve of employees. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a leading provider of trainings for the aviation industry, is also a strong believer in that notion. The association has been exploring this technology since late 2016 and developed RampVR – a virtual reality training solution for ground operations. The future is clearly holding promises of more interaction, whether on the ground or in the air.


Recap of VR & AR at InfoComm MEA Summit. Immersive World organized by the VR/AR Association

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Innovative VR Mall showcased at the iconic forum in Dubai

Dubai, UAE, February 19, 2018: NDigitec, the leading UAE-based innovative creative media production company, was in the epicenter of discussions at InfoComm MEA 2017 Summit in Dubai, showcasing its expertise in the Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality.At the Summit, NDigitec was in the list of participants of the Immersive World organized by VR/AR Association [VRARA].

NDigitec Head of Development Department Victor Danielyan and Head of Content Creation Eyad Arabi presented the company's VR/AR technologies as well as expertise and how they are changing the face of the industry.

This participation assumes added significance as the VR/ AR industry is expected to be worth $6 billion in Middle East and North Africa region by 2020 and $143.3 billion globally. Mr. Danielyan and Mr.Arabi also presented a keynote speech titled 'Immersive Reality in Daily Lives focused on elements of virtual environments and the ways immersive reality improves day-to-day lives.

At the Summit, NDigitec also presented its innovative product - VR Mall, which is one of the most innovative ways of e-commerce available in the market. Moreover, the company presented its AR project for Feadship, one of the world leading producers of super yachts in the region, and the VR walkthrough for the Kempinski Hotel in Palm Jumeirah, Dubai.

Victor Danielyan, NDigitec Head of Development Department, said: 'The AR/ VR community is closely communicating with each other and NDigitec is one of the frontiers of that community in the UAE. The InfoComm Summit gave the company a unique platform to reinforce its knowledge and technologies in the AR/VR fields. The preview of the VR Mall, which is going to be launched for the broader audience soon, was aimed at giving attendees a snapshot of the future.

Eyad Arabi, NDigitec Head of Content Creation, said: 'The importance of valuing Immersive Reality technologies as an inseparable part of our daily lives cannot be understated. NDigitec VR/ AR projects have huge significance in the ensuing fast and efficient development of this field in UAE.

NDigitec AR/VR production unit works seamlessly with its digital printing competency to produce customized eco-friendly VR gears. The company also organizes a quarterly AR/VR symposium where it gathers key industry experts to discuss the new trends in the market to help ideate the best AR/VR services and solutions.