Virtual tourism, business and education take off amid coronavirus

Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum launches interactive online tour of holy sites, as remote business and education tools see massive spike in activity

Children using virtual reality technology to learn about Jewish culture  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Children using virtual reality technology to learn about Jewish culture
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The novel coronavirus is heralding a new age of tourism, business and education, with many around the globe now being forced to stay home or under quarantine as governments enact emergency measures to quell the spread of the disease.
While many major industries are struggling to survive the onslaught on everyday life, virtual reality (VR) companies and remote communication platforms are seeing massive spikes in activity as social distancing becomes the norm.
On Sunday, the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem will launch a VR project that will allow people to remotely tour the city’s famous holy sites from the comfort of their own home. The wide-ranging initiative, dubbed “The Holy City,” features immersive experiences of the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the priestly blessing (“Birkat Kohanim”) at the Western Wall, and Ramadan prayers in Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
The tour is free and can be viewed online with or without a VR headset from April 9-24. Outside of those dates the VR experience will be available for paid download.
Eilat Lieber, director of the Tower of David Museum, told The Media Line that before the COVID-19 outbreak Jerusalem was expecting hundreds of thousands of Jewish, Christian and Muslim pilgrims to arrive in April. For the first time since 1992, Passover, Easter and Ramadan were all set to take place in the same month.
But with the latest Israeli Health Ministry directives banning all foreign travelers and nonessential activities, the tourism industry has taken a massive hit and museums across the country have shut their doors.
“At least we have the Holy City virtual tour of Jerusalem,” Lieber said. “Many people want to visit all over the world and they can’t.”
The Holy City project was initially set to combine a VR tour with an interactive historical display and escape room inside the Tower of David Museum. Once visitors who were physically present would make their way to the end of the escape room, they would then get to experience the holy sites virtually.
Museums all over the world are adopting VR technology in order to get their cultural content out to the world during the crisis, Lieber said.
“This experience is talking about the city of three religions and it’s very balanced,” she asserted. “Here at the Tower of David, we believe that knowledge is power. If you know the other, we believe that you will be more tolerant and inclusive. This is the way to experience Jerusalem.”
Holy City VR, the team behind the project, is a joint venture between Blimey, a Jerusalem-based company, and a Canada-based company named Occupied VR. They had to receive special permission from the religious authorities in order to produce the 360-degree videos at the Western Wall, Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Also known as the Temple Mount, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is generally not accessible to the wider public due to it being a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Each one of us approached the different institutions in Jerusalem and [made clear] that they are not going to be misrepresented by anyone,” Nimrod Shanit, executive director of Holy City VR and the owner of Blimey, explained to The Media Line. “It was a really interesting way to work, kind of like an interfaith project.”
Even though the museum’s project can be viewed from home, Shanit noted that the full experience at the Tower of David Museum is significantly more interactive and that he hopes visitors would eventually get to see the real deal.
With the coronavirus pandemic, VR and remote communication platforms are taking on an even greater added importance as a much-needed form of “escapism,” he said.
“It’s a very interesting period,” Shanit affirmed. “There’s a kind of paradigm shift when it comes to a lot of things. A lot of platforms and virtual ways of communication were accessible earlier [but] might have been looked at as premium or exclusive.
“Suddenly, they’ve become a thing where people can understand how they can be of value. This immersive medium really gives you that feeling of being somewhere else,” he said.
Businesses, Education Sector Jump on Remote Communication Bandwagon
It is not only the cultural sphere that is turning to creative technologies as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
As a growing number of companies tell their employees to work from home, remote communication platforms are also reaping the benefits.
Video-conferencing specialist Zoom has seen a jump of hundreds of percentage points in use, according to Tamar Zuk, the marketing manager of Naotech, the official representative of Zoom in Israel.
“Up until around 2 weeks ago, the businesses that were using our services were those with more than 50 employees or hi-tech companies,” Zuk revealed to The Media Line. “Today we see that video conference solutions have become a necessity and not a luxury.”
Zuk said that while this mode of holding meetings and communicating has essentially been forced on businesses because of the virus, she expects that it will soon become the norm thanks to its efficiency.
“There are several benefits to holding meetings online versus having them in person, such as the ability to record them, the fact that you can review them and then send them to other people if needed,” she explained. “[Businesses] will understand that it is much more effective and better to work with online meetings.”
In addition to businesses, schools are turning to virtual communication in order to continue to operate.
Multinational firm Kaltura has set up a massive online platform for students from grades 7 to 12 in Israel in cooperation with the Israeli Education Ministry and online learning company Lnet.
“We set up an operation that other companies take about six months to launch in less than a week,” Zohar Babin, executive vice president of platform and growth at Kaltura, told The Media Line. “This is our time to shine and really reinvent how education is done.”
Kaltura has repackaged educational curriculum into 20-minute lessons that are being broadcast nationwide to roughly 700,000 students, according to Babin.
“We’re trying to handle the crisis but it’s also at the same time a huge opportunity for the education space,” he said, adding that the educational sphere has long lagged behind other sectors in being open to adopting new technologies.
The online classes Kaltura offers were designed in cooperation with pedagogical professionals and following each lesson students are invited to complete assignments. While the lessons themselves are centralized, with Kaltura and the Education Ministry providing standardized classes in all subjects, schools also have the option of creating their own virtual environments and tailoring assignments to suit their own needs.
Babin believes the COVID-19 pandemic marks the beginning of a fundamental shift in learning.
“We’re just getting started here,” he asserted. “We’re going to add interactive capabilities in the coming days [and] more social capabilities.”
Aside from convenience factors, the environmental benefits of remote communication and work are a major added bonus. In fact, levels of air pollutants in several cities and regions around the world have seen a drastic drop since the coronavirus outbreak, with NASA and the European Space Agency recording a significant reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions typically released by vehicles and industrial facilities.
“We’ve gotten used to spending all that time traveling and trying to stay [physically present] with each person, whereas the biggest benefit with technology is that we can be in person with each other but not have to travel and not have to invest all that time in going from place to place,” Babin said. “It’s doing better for the world and for us. We can do a lot more in less time.”
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