The overarching goal of the virtual ecotourism project is to connect people to the incredible ecosystems that sustain our planet as well as the diversity of cultures worldwide in order to contribute to the conservation of our planet.
But how do we plan to reach that goal? Over the next week, this blog will be featuring a series of posts that outline the vEco team’s current objectives and strategy, summarize our recent work and focus, and look to the future of the project.
A perfect post for the beginning of a new year!
Phase I: Tour Development
Main Objective: Reaching out to all corners of the globe, educate individuals about wildlife, ecosystems and conservation issues in a revolutionary and engaging manner.
Virtual Ecotourism was invented in 2004 by project director Mark Laxer. Starting in 2009, tours of Uganda and Madagascar were piloted to a general audience using the Beta 1 version of the tourist interface and multimedia.
Recorded Tour – People and Wildlife in Tsinjoarivo, Madagascar Recorded September 2010.
Image: Mark Laxer, in the field.
In September 2011, the project began to move forward in earnest, and tours were suspended while the user interface was overhauled and the tour multimedia updated and expanded. We have made many exciting changes during the past four months in order to take advantage of the amazing new digital technologies available to the team. Our Phase I strategy has been to develop a showcase tour that we can use to test technology, gauge public interest in the project, and use for partner outreach. Past virtual ecotours have incorporated some great features, including:
A) A live tour guide (on location in the field) and host.
B) Pre-recorded images, sound and text.
C) The ability for tourists to ask questions of the host & guide though a one-way messaging system.
D) A live map showing the path of the tour guide and the ability of tourists to guide the direction of the tour.
Image: Beta User Interface circa 2010
Currently, our IT and content teams are working on ways to make the tours even more engaging, amazing, and authentic. The user interface is being overhauled, and the tours are being developed with tourist engagement and participation at the forefront, with emphasis on storytelling, dialogue, and guided activities. The following updates are currently being tested:
A) Many pre-recorded images will be spherical panoramas: stunning images that allow the user to see a location as if they are standing in the middle of it. Click the image of Lake Nabugabo to experience one yourself! You can see more examples here: Virtual Ecotourism Panoramic Photo Gallery.
B) A) Live sounds (from a uni-directional mike), and some live images will be incorporated.
C) All images will be GPS-located and mapped.
D) The IT team is experimenting with the incorporation of Unity 3D technology, which will allow tourists to enter and explore a virtual replication of the tour site.
E) Through our participation in the Digital Media and Learning Badges Competition, we are also exploring ways to utilize badges and gamification of content to reward 21st century learning experiences during tours.
F) Live text (via chatbox) will be available to tourists, who can then discuss issues and activities between themselves and with the tour hosts.
G) There will be the opportunity to participate in moderated forums after the tours.
H) Finally, we are committed to creating areas of exploration that can be accessed when tours are not in session.
Currently, the vEco team is deeply immersed in our Phase I development work. We hope to have a Beta 2 showcase tour by February 2012, wherein all of our new technologies will be featured.