WildEyes at Central Park School for Children in Durham

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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." 

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.

WildEyes founder Derek Alan Rowe
WildEyes founder Derek Alan Rowe films national parks on a 360-degree camera. Credit: WildEyes
So far, Rowe has toured and filmed 15 national parks on his way toward a goal to reach all 59. Locations range from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota to North Cascades National Park in Washington.

Rowe filmed more than one park per month during the Indiegogo campaign, but now he averages one park every month. The almost year-long journey is documented on WildEyes’ fundraising page.

Though he’s accompanied by a small production team on the trips, Rowe actually films the parks by himself. He goes about doing so in such a way that values the visitor viewpoint, always asking park rangers or bystanders in park lobbies for advice on the best places to go.

“We don’t go anywhere people can’t experience,” he says. “We want them to use WildEyes with the idea that maybe they can go visit these parks themselves.” 

The result of the project will be a mobile application that’s packed with footage from the parks in virtual reality. It’ll be available for free, with paid options for exclusive experiences like a tour through a cave led by a national parks guide. Rowe hopes that eventual sponsorships—ideally with prominent companies like View-Master, which has been producing 3D viewing devices since 1939—will help with the app’s development and release.

Durham-based WildEyes allows people to experience the U.S. National Parks in virtual reality. Credit: WildEyes
Once the app is released, users will be able to both see and experience the parks through the company’s proprietary headset. 

Its look is borrowed from Google Cardboard’s open source DIY headset design and is packaged by Netherlands-based Cardboard Owl. It’s decorated with a unique “Animal Kingdom”-themed pattern designed by pen and ink artist Sue Coccia, who makes coloring books.

Though the app isn’t yet developed, WildEyes’ headset and content are already in use.

Last academic school year, Rowe launched a demo project with the Central Park School for Children in Durham.

Fourth grade students chose from a list of parks Rowe was filming. They researched and presented what they learned about the parks they selected. At the end of the year, Rowe and his team brought in headsets and content so kids could virtually explore the parks they chose. 

Aaron Sebens, Central Park School librarian and project specialist says the students “loved the immersive experience and having the freedom of viewpoint within the environment.”

Next year’s cohort of fourth graders will also use WildEyes to “celebrate the (National Park Service) centennial and highlight the value of conservation,” Sebens adds.

WildEyes at Central Park School for Children in Durham
WildEyes, a project that puts footage from national parks into virtual reality, is in use at Central Park School for Children in Durham. Credit: WildEyes
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.