How a Dubai-based startup is changing the face of Middle East VR filmmaking

Entrepreneurs believe VR technology could soon be used in schools. (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 10 January 2020

How a Dubai-based startup is changing the face of Middle East VR filmmaking

  • Karim Saad created the Middle East’s first VR filming start-up in 2013 after a lifetime of fascination with technology
  • Giga Works offers VR marketing campaigns to top brands and creates immersive entertainment

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.


This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region. 

 


Thousands protest in Iraq to demand ouster of US troops

Updated 38 min 9 sec ago

Thousands protest in Iraq to demand ouster of US troops

  • A representative of Sadr took to the stage at the protest site and read out a statement by the influential Shiite cleric and populist politician
  • In the early hours of Friday, thousands of men, women and children of all ages massed under grey skies in the Jadiriyah district of east Baghdad

BAGHDAD: Thousands of supporters of populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr gathered in Baghdad on Friday for a rally to demand the ouster of US troops, putting the protest-hit capital on edge.

The march rattled the separate, months-old protest movement that has gripped the capital and the Shiite-majority south since October, demanding a government overhaul, early elections and more accountability.

In the early hours of Friday, thousands of men, women and children of all ages massed under grey skies in the Jadiriyah district of east Baghdad.

“Get out, get out, occupier!” some shouted, while others chanted, “Yes to sovereignty!“

A representative of Sadr took to the stage at the protest site and read out a statement by the influential Shiite cleric and populist politician.

It called for all foreign forces to leave Iraq, the cancelation of Iraq’s security agreements with the US, the closure of Iraqi airspace to American military and surveillance aircraft and for US President Donald Trump not to be “arrogant” when addressing Iraqi officials.

“If all this is implemented, we will deal with it as a non-occupying country — otherwise it will be considered a country hostile to Iraq,” the statement said.

Protesters then began peeling away from the square, tossing their signs in bins along the way, but thousands lingered in the rally camp.

The American military presence has been a hot-button issue in Iraq since a US drone strike killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary leader Abu
Mahdi Al-Muhandis outside Baghdad airport on January 3.

Two days later, parliament voted for all foreign troops, including some 5,200 US personnel, to leave the country.

The vote was non-binding and the US special envoy for the coalition against the Daesh group, James Jeffrey, said Thursday there was no “real engagement” between the two governments on the issue.

Joint US-Iraqi operations against IS have been on hold since the drone attack, which triggered retaliatory Iranian missile strikes against US troops in Iraq.

No Iraqi or US personnel were killed in Iran’s strike.

Long opposed to the US troop presence, Sadr seized on the public anger over the drone strike to call “a million-strong, peaceful, unified demonstration to condemn the American presence and its violations.”

Several pro-Iran factions from the Hashed Al-Shaabi paramilitary force, usually rivals of Sadr, backed his call and pledged to join.

But separate anti-government protesters, who have braved violence that has left 470 people dead since October, fear their cause could be eclipsed by Sadr’s powerplay.

“Sadr doesn’t represent us,” one teenager said defiantly late Thursday on a blocked-off thoroughfare in Baghdad.

To head off Friday’s gathering and ramp up pressure on authorities to enact reforms, young demonstrators blocked streets in Baghdad and across the south this week.

There had been worries that angry crowds might attack the presidential palace or the high-security Green Zone, home to the US embassy and other foreign missions.

The move would not be without precedent for Sadr, who urged followers to storm the Green Zone in 2016 in a challenge to the government over undelivered reforms.

But there were no attempts on Friday morning to storm government buildings.

Sadr, 46, battled US forces at the head of his Mehdi Army militia after the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

He later branded himself a reformist and backed the recent anti-government protests when they erupted in October.

The cleric controls parliament’s largest bloc and his followers hold top ministerial positions.

Sadr is a notoriously fickle politician, known for switching alliances quickly.

His spokesman Saleh Al-Obeidy hinted that while others in Iraq unequivocally blamed either the US or Iran for instability, Sadr would choose a middle path.

“We believe that both are behind this ruin, and Sadr is trying to balance between the two,” he said.

Harith Hasan of the Carnegie Middle East Center said Sadr was trying to sustain his “multiple identities” by backing various protests.

“On the one hand, (he seeks to) position himself as the leader of a reform movement, as a populist, as anti-establishment,” Hasan told AFP.

“On the other hand, he also wants to sustain his image as the leader of the resistance to the ‘American occupation’,” partly to win favor with Iran.
Sadr may also have domestic motivations, Hasan said.

“This protest will show Sadr is still the one able to mobilize large groups of people in the streets — but it’s also possible he wants other groups to respond by giving him more space to choose the prime minister.”