At a Tampa film festival in 2014, a conservationist for Google said something that struck young Florida documentary filmmaker and digital designer Derek Alan Rowe. During a presentation on Google Earth’s underwater street view feature, he said something along the lines of, “If I can get someone’s head underwater, I can get them under the ocean.”
This Durham Startup is Bringing All 59 U.S. National Parks to Life in Virtual Reality
In other words, the way to get people engaged in the world around them is to first get them interacting with it.
After some reflection on that idea, Rowe decided to use his background in technology and film to “set a new bar for conservation media.” He made the move from Orlando to Durham, identifying with the city’s growing tech scene. And now he’s on his way toward setting that bar with WildEyes, a project aimed to bring all of the U.S. National Parks to life in virtual reality.
The project launched last fall after Rowe raised $9,001 through an Indiegogo campaign. The funds went toward park and travel expenses and 360-degree camera equipment.
Also helping jumpstart the project is Doctrine Creative, a small creative production company in Orlando that Rowe runs with three co-founders.
To Rowe, the demo showed that WildEyes works in classrooms and should be in the hands of students everywhere.
A new partnership should make this goal possible.
WildEyes just became a content provider for Google Expeditions, a free application teachers can use to take their students on virtual reality field trips anywhere in the world—from the ocean depths to outer space.
Google Expeditions will release WildEyes content to the app on the National Park Service’s 100-year anniversary, August 25.
In light of WildEyes’ success, Rowe has not lost sight of his mission to create content that stays true to the park experience, that “breaks down what’s inspiring about the natural world,” he says.
WildEyes is among a new crop of virtual reality startups that are reimagining existing technology to better industries such as education, medicine, therapy and even architecture, says Nate Hoffmeier, assistant organizer of Research Triangle Park’s virtual reality network, RTPVR.
And they’re attracting the attention of venture capitalists. The Virtual Reality Venture Capital Alliance was formed earlier this year by Vive, which is part of major smartphone brand HTC. It consists of top technology venture capital firms such as Sequoia Capital and Redpoint Ventures. With a $10 billion bankroll, the alliance meets every month in Beijing and San Francisco to hear pitches from virtual reality startups.
But since the industry is so fresh, there’s little competition between startups in the virtual reality space. This allows for room to collaborate on ways to build sustainable business models, with or without venture capital support, Hoffmeier says.
Though it’s part of an industry that hasn’t yet seen massive success or massive failure, WildEyes has an edge, Hoffmeier believes.
It uses virtual reality to “share these beautiful experiences with kids who might not have exposure to these places,” and serves as an educator in the industry.
“WildEyes is hoping to increase awareness of our natural parks and introduce people to the concept of going outside and enjoying nature,” he adds.
Existing within a budding tech industry that’s full of never-before-seen innovation, WildEyes stays in touch with something intangible and everlasting.
It’s harnessing new technologies as mediums to connect people of all ages to the universally primitive act of appreciating nature.