Innovative experiences are becoming widespread in the animal world. Immersive technologies allow a dive into the world of animals from all horizons. A new way of discovering the planet’s fauna and flora, without moving them from their natural habitat.
The air is cool, but the sky is blue. The Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris is teeming with families who have come to stroll around on this fine February day. Behind the merry-go-rounds, two children are running after a peacock. A scene that leaves one perplexed when one has just attended the Wild Immersion experience. Scheduled for a year, the animation allows to discover wild animals from all over the world in their natural environment. Young and old alike take their seats in a room fitted out with footstools, stools and benches, on which virtual reality headsets are placed. Once equipped, a twelve-minute film unfolds around us. The scenes are filmed with 360° cameras, so the viewer can turn his or her head wherever he or she likes to admire the landscape, its fauna and flora. A herd of bison passes overhead, a polar bear growls and foxes, curious about our presence, seem to approach within a few centimetres of our nose. It’s almost like being there.
The films are made for the Jardin d’Acclimatation and change every quarter, moving from the world of the great apes, to marine and terrestrial creatures. This project required an investment of €500,000 to create a comfortable viewing area and €40,000 for the 100 helmets available.
« It is a reminder of our tradition of acclimatising the flora and fauna that led to our creation in 1860, which, in a past that is now completely over, reduced us to a zoo. But it is also an opportunity to travel around the world without a carbon footprint, to roam the jungle or dive into the Arctic waters without leaving Paris. Spectators see real wild animals, sometimes endangered, in their natural habitats, without computer-generated images, and feel as if they could almost touch them, » reports Marc-Antoine Jamet, president of the Jardin d’Acclimatation. Over the past year, 150,000 visitors have had this experience.
A change in public opinion
The arguments of establishments with animals in captivity do not vary. Our daily concern is for the animals and their well-being, » explains Pierre Singer, director of the Sainte-Croix animal park, for example. If zoos behave badly, we will close them down together. At his place, the animals live in semi-liberty, and he insists on the need to nuance the statements and take into account the real physiological needs of the animals. « Scientifically, we have shown that the wolf’s territory ranges from 1.5 square kilometres to 100 square kilometres, the ideal being the smallest. We have a human vision, we colonise, we are imperialist, we need large spaces. But wolves, when they have a large territory, it’s because they have nothing to eat, and to secure it is even more complicated.
Let’s concede it. But an orca, in its natural environment, swims an average of 160 kilometres in a day, which is equivalent to 1 400 laps of the tank in captivity.
The conditions in which animals are kept in captivity are often singled out for criticism, particularly in the case of circuses and dolphinariums. Indeed, they are the ones who stage their animals. Training is at the heart of their daily routine, and is essential for presenting their shows to visitors. The visitors are splashed by the cetaceans, who end up waving goodbye with their flippers, while the tigers jump through flaming hoops. Acts that erase their natural behaviour in the eyes of the spectators. The poor living conditions also need no further proof. Although the animals have access to quality care and are surrounded by dedicated and competent carers, the spaces available to them are not adapted. Forced to live together in small tanks, conflicts take on a different dimension and some animals can become violent towards others. Behavioural problems are often observed: boredom, stress, depression, illness, etc.
The Marineland park in Antibes (06), which offers orca, dolphin and sea lion shows, always welcomes many visitors (850,000 in 2017). But the public is increasingly informed about the living conditions of cetaceans, whether by animal rights associations, scientists or former keepers. In 2017, these denunciations led Ségolène Royal to issue a ministerial order banning the reproduction of cetaceans in captivity. This was the only way to put an end to this system. It was annulled the following year by the Council of State.
However, attitudes are changing. The 2020 annual barometer « The French and animal welfare », conducted by the Fondation 30 Millions d’Amis and Ifop, shows that 69% of French people want the disappearance of dolphinariums that keep orcas and dolphins in captivity for entertainment purposes, an increase of five points compared to 2019. Furthermore, 72% are in favour of ending the exploitation of wild animals in circuses, again an increase of five points compared to 2019.
This is a general trend that is opposed to animal suffering and that has been taken up by the public authorities. In France, 293 municipalities now refuse to host circuses with animals. Worldwide, 45 countries are opposed, including 23 in Europe.
The alternatives are multiplying
In parallel with this awareness, technologies have developed. Virtual reality has opened up to the general public. The concept is simple: thanks to an adapted headset, it is possible to access a virtual world, created from scratch.
It then becomes possible to bring back to life animals that have disappeared, such as dinosaurs. This was the proposal made by Thoiry Zoo (78) to its visitors in 2017 with the « Valley of the Dinosaurs » animation. Guangzhou Zoo in China also proposed a similar attraction, with the aim of creating a virtual zoo. A part of the park is now dedicated to this type of animation, but visitors can still go and see the animals in the flesh in the park.
Wild Immersion, on the other hand, uses only the virtual reality headset. The world that the audience accesses is real, it was filmed with a 360° camera, which allows to observe the environment in its entirety. The film could also be viewed on a smartphone, which would be rotated to get the same result.
Virtual reality and its tools are beginning to be democratised in the animal world, closely followed by holograms. The Roncalli circus, based in Germany, created a surprise with this technology. Sensitive to the animal cause, it had only used horses since the 1990s. In 2018, it took a step forward by presenting its new formula, where all the animals are replaced by holograms. 3D content is projected, as if suspended in the air, and directly perceptible to the naked eye. No need for headphones or a smartphone. « For children, adults and the public as a whole, it is more interesting and in tune with the times than animal training. It attracts a new audience, we have had tens of thousands of positive reactions », says Bernhard Paul, co-founder of the circus, for the media outlet Brut.
On the same principle, in 2017, the city of Paris also welcomed lions, zebras and tigers in its streets for a few nights.
For Benoît Derot, CEO of Holopix, which specialises in holography, we must not forget augmented reality, which will be a real challenge in the future. « What they did at the Roncalli circus was magnificent, but it was a sound and light show. The elephant arrives and then falls apart. You lose the soul of the animal.
Augmented reality is the interposition of digital elements that are added to the real environment through an interface, such as a phone or glasses. It is the same technology as Pokémon GO, the famous game that caused crowds in cities around the world when it was released. The results are often stunning, like this burning lion above a football stadium in Argentina. Here, the animal was only visible through a phone screen, but augmented reality glasses should soon be available. The race is on between the American giants to be the first on the market, as expectations are high and the possibilities infinite.
Proponents of this technology imagine circuses and dolphinariums that are animal-free and much more intuitive. With augmented reality glasses we could see everything around us, and more. Imagine a walk in the forest, for example, with all the flora around you, the people with you and dozens of animals… Benoît Derot goes even further. « With the glasses, we could see the animals up close, because we know that in zoos, the lion is often 15 metres away, lying in the grass, and you can’t see anything. Here you can get close, almost touch it. We’re going to get there with interactive gloves. With the progress of computer graphics, the animals will be strikingly realistic. Just look at the new Lion King, which is a technical feat. It will be very immersive, if you are in the savannah for example, the sun will warm your skin, you will feel the wind… Things you can’t get with virtual reality. »
Technical and ethical limits
These new alternatives, however promising, have their limits. Augmented reality glasses are still in the prototype stage. But we could already be asking questions about the proper use of this technology and respect for ethics. We could create animals on command, without respecting their natural behaviour and thus convey false beliefs.
Holography, on the other hand, has not reached the end of its capabilities. « My clients often ask me for holograms like they have seen in the movies, but most of the time it is impossible, there is a big lack of knowledge among the public about what is possible today, » Benoît Derot admits.
In addition, the time and cost of implementation must be taken into account. For the Roncalli circus, the installation would have required an investment of €500,000, a team of fifteen 3D engineers and several years of work.
For Pierre Singer, these technologies can only be a complementary experience. « We are experimenting with disconnection-reconnection. Disconnection from everyday life and reconnection to nature and our surroundings. What people lack in their lives is a director. A lynx in a tree at 5 meters they won’t see it. We will. So we put the camera on the lynx. It’s a bit counterintuitive today to put them back into all this technology. We have an immersive indoor experience, but it doesn’t work so much, visitors want to be outside. »
The director of the Sainte-Croix animal park also insists on his mission to raise awareness, particularly among children. This is a major issue shared by all those involved in the animal world, but often characterised as an excuse for confinement. A project is currently being developed on this subject, Nima World. An immersive experience in a building covered with screens, at the heart of animal life, « a paradigm shift in the way we learn about the real behaviour of animals », the project promises.
Ending the captivity of animals raises an essential question: where will the animals currently in the various parks and zoos go? Either we will have to wait for the last generations to die out in captivity, or another alternative exists: nature reserves. For Christine Grandjean, president of the association « C’est assez », these animals cannot return to their natural environment, especially those born in captivity, « and if we stop everything tomorrow, for example, the orcas will have to go to China, which is even worse. According to an Ifop poll conducted in 2018, 86% of French people are in favour of the creation of marine sanctuaries or refuges. For cetaceans, these places do not yet exist. One project should soon see the light of day: the Whales Sanctuary project. A reserve in the northern United States where animals, previously used for entertainment purposes, will be able to live in semi-freedom. A dolphinarium, SeaWorld, has also undertaken to create a similar reserve to house its animals, but they have still not found a suitable location « because of global warming ». Of the 50 or so sites the aquarium has inspected, none has so far been deemed sufficiently safe from severe storms and algal blooms, both of which are expected to worsen as temperatures rise.