Get to know the companies working on AR and VR to bring people closer to Islam
- 16 October 2018
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A whole new set of tools and resources is spreading across the Middle East, giving Muslims a chance to learn about their religion in more ways than ever before. Virtual reality (VR) has been making headlines ever since Oculus launched a Kickstarter campaign for its VR headset Oculus Rift back in 2012. Four years later, the Oculus Rift was released into the market at a whopping $800.
According to industry insiders, this technology will reach mainstream adoption in the Middle East within the next few years, meaning that everyone will be able to access VR content even through their smartphones. It’s this prediction that led Ehab Fares, CEO of Egypt-based digital production agency Vhorus, to become the first in the Middle East to develop a VR app on Oculus.
“It all started in 2016 when Facebook bought Oculus; that was our biggest motivator,” Fares told My Salaam. “I wanted to introduce the tech narrative to Islam to be able to [counter] all the misleading information about Islam on the digital cloud that Millennials access on a daily basis to gain knowledge. Our main objective was to create a more accurate and immersive experience that would attract that specific audience.”
Vhorus introduced the first true VR experience from the Middle East, Experience Mecca. The highly rated app provides an immersive, to-scale experience, though Fares is quick to add that it “does not aim to replace visiting the holy site”.
“It took us a whole year to research and develop Experience Mecca,” he explained. “We had to model the Kaaba to scale on paper [long before 3D printing was accessible] and then code it onto a computer to turn the physical model into a virtual one.”
Fares and eight people from his team scoured the Internet for everything from the blueprints of the Kaaba to the sound file of the Athan played in Mecca. “Gathering this information was one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced. We had to use the information we had plus our own personal experiences at Mecca to craft a hyper-real version of the holy place online.”
Although the entrepreneur expected only 10,000 downloads in total, the Experience Mecca app has been downloaded over 185,000 times and has 76 per cent active users. Across Turkey, the United States, the GCC, Japan, Brazil, Chile and more, the global app continues to gain momentum as the sales of the headsets increase worldwide.
“Six months after launching Experience Mecca, we came up with Experience Quran,” Fares continued. “[This is a] simple, interactive method to teach a younger audience the miracles and awe-inspiring stories of the Holy Quran using immersive, 360-degree storytelling techniques.” Next up is Experience Hajj, set to launch in 2019.
More entrepreneurs are tapping into the potential of VR and AR for religious education. Other releases currently on the market are Manasik VR and Makkah 3D, which also focus on Mecca. There’s also Miradj 360 VR, currently in development, which is intended for use by tour operators to show customers what to expect before travelling for the haj.
Meanwhile, following a stint at Washington-based business incubator Halcyon, 22-year-old Saudi entrepreneur Reem Dad is developing Taibah VR, a platform for pilgrims and tourists to experience a VR tour of Madinah Munawwarah, one of Islam’s holiest sites.
VR and AR technologies are shaping up to be promising segments that the Islamic economy can tap into. It is worth noting that some offerings can be used by individuals of all backgrounds. One example comes from UAE-based international school JESS Dubai, where students were given the opportunity to learn about the Holy Month during Ramadan earlier this year.
As part of efforts to bring together students of every religion, Selina Turner, Assistant Head Teacher of Arabic and Islamic Education, ran activities for pupils that included “learning about the etiquette to be observed at a mosque through a virtual reality visit to the Shaikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi”. In an interview at the time, she explained, “At JESS, we have a relatively small number of Muslim students, and for the majority who are not fasting, there is a danger that they could think that Ramadan is only about not eating and drinking in public or finishing school early. […] We want to convey the message that Ramadan is for everyone while trying to inform people about the obligations of Muslims.”
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