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)
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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. 

 


Houthi banknote ban sparks crisis in Yemen

Updated 20 January 2020

Houthi banknote ban sparks crisis in Yemen

  • Locals are bracing for a spike in fuel prices, which occurs when riyal dives

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Prices of basic imported goods increased 10 percent in government-controlled areas of Yemen this weekend — a result of the Houthi ban on newly printed banknotes.

“Importers told us the increase is due to the fall of the Yemeni riyal against the dollar and the Saudi riyal,” Mohammed, a shop owner in Al-Mukalla told Arab News.

The Iran-backed Houthis issued a ban on the use of banknotes released by the Central Bank in Aden, saying the move is meant to stop inflation and the deterioration of the Yemeni riyal against hard currencies. The Houthis have vowed to confiscate new bills and punish traders who possess or use them.

When the Houthis issued the ban a month ago, the Yemeni riyal was trading at 600 against the dollar.

The riyal has since fallen in value to around 650, forcing local importers to increase the prices of goods, and demonstrating
how areas liberated from the Houthis are still vulnerable to their economic decisions.

Locals are also bracing for a spike in fuel prices, which usually occurs when the Yemeni riyal dives.

Since December, Houthi-controlled areas such as Sanaa and other heavily populated areas in northern Yemen have suffered from a severe credit crisis that has pushed locals to exchange new bills with scarce and damaged old ones, or converting them to the dollar or Saudi riyal.

The liquidity crisis has prompted local exchange companies to freeze government salaries, exacerbating suffering in a country that is experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN. 

“My agency managed to get rid of new notes here and there. We now only accept Saudi riyals or old bills,” a young man who runs a travel agency in Sanaa told Arab News on condition of anonymity to protect his identity. 

“Traders who have a lot of new bills smuggle them inside goods to be delivered to government-controlled areas, where they’re exchanged for old banknotes.”

The dollar is traded at 580 Yemeni riyals in Houthi-controlled areas, lending weight to economists’ speculation that the decision could create two economies, derail business between liberated areas and those under Houthi control, and boost currency arbitrage on the black market. 

Another repercussion of the ban is the unprecedented level of smuggling of hard and local currency between north and south.

In Al-Mukalla, local exchange companies told Arab News on Sunday that big traders in Sanaa smuggle hard currencies into liberated areas, where they are sold at higher rates. 

“They buy the dollar at 580 in Sanaa and sell it here at 640,” said Abu Awadh, a worker at a local exchange company who used a nom de guerre because he is not authorized to speak to reporters. Demand for the dollar and the Saudi riyal has decreased for the first time in years, he added.

Despite an abundance of the dollar in the market, the Yemeni riyal continues to plunge. According to local traders, the reason is that currency dealers move dollars between liberated areas seeking higher rates. 

The internationally recognized government in Aden, which has condemned the ban, appears powerless against its repercussions.

The Economic Reforms Team, a group of economic experts, warned that the Houthi decision could cause humanitarian, economic, social and political consequences. It urged warring parties in Yemen not to use the economy as a weapon.