ALEXANDRIA: Advances in virtual reality (VR) technology are opening a new world of possibilities in areas ranging from filmmaking to medicine, merging the digital and physical worlds to create fully immersive, life-like experiences.
For Karim Saad, VR was an obsession that started at a young age. After graduating in the 1990s with a degree in filmmaking from Saint Joseph University in Beirut, he began exploring his talents in many creative ways.
“When I was in college, filmmaking was primitive. But by the time I graduated, a noticeable shift in filmmaking started to take place,” he said.
It was not until 2012 that Saad had his first VR experience at a trade fair in Germany. “I remember the day I first put on a VR headset, a beta version of the Oculus we know today,” he said.
“Despite it being just a prototype, I was amazed and determined to bring this technology to the UAE. One year later, I did.”
In 2013, the Middle East’s first VR filming startup was born. Around the same time, the Oculus Rift headset was released, and Saad began experimenting with the technology.
“I was obsessed with VR and 360 videos. I would buy equipment all the time and document everything — from weekend travels to day-to-day life — and show my friends, family, network and even potential clients. By the time I started Giga Works, I already had more than what I needed, in terms of tools.”
Two years after launching the startup, Saad got his first real job — a marketing campaign for a food product imported into the UAE.
The campaign revolved around the concept of comparing old and new Dubai.
Using the Oculus Rift for the first time in the region, Saad delivered a video experience that plunges the viewer into the desert in a vintage Land Rover (also one of the first cars to come into the UAE) and then suddenly takes them to the “new” Dubai, featuring the Marina Skyline, Sky Dive Dubai and more.
The campaign was just the beginning for Saad and his VR startup.
“When it comes to tech, people are reluctant to try new things. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced was introducing VR to the conventional marketing landscape in the UAE,” he said.
“VR marketing isn’t cheap, but it is worth it. It offers immersive experiences that help customers connect with the brand and product in new and exciting ways. I try to overcome this obstacle by educating people about VR’s uses and potential.”
According to Saad, VR today is only at 5 percent of its potential. Future uses will include sports, recruitment, medicine and education.
“With VR tech, you can access a wider audience,” he said. “VR education, for example, will enable those with limited resources or funds to go to schools and get an education virtually.”
In a TED Talk last year, Saad spoke about “smart education” and explained how VR would soon replace schools.
“The uses are exponential and up to our imagination,” he said.
“There are no limits to what we can do with this technology, especially when you combine AR (augmented reality) and VR to create mixed reality.”
Giga Works conducts VR marketing campaigns for leading brands, creating travel experiences, documentaries, educational videos and immersive entertainment.
Now the futuristic filmmaker is working on an immersive VR expedition around Antarctica to raise awareness about global warming.
“For me, the next phase is all about telling stories, creating art and filming more movies. VR has come a long way, but still has a long way to go,” he said.