Parallel Parks

Kim Gracey
Parallel Parks

Technology is a great enabler.

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It has the power to remove barriers and change lives. And it is constantly evolving. Even technology that has been around for some time, is being used in new and innovative ways. Virtual reality (VR) for example has been around for a long time, being used as far back as the 1970s for medical, flight and military purposes. Now thanks to a new initiative, VR is now being used in a new way, to allow more people to access nature, and increase their wellbeing.

More than a billion people have some form of disability. For people with disability or mobility issues, diving the Great Barrier Reef, or walking around Kangaroo Island can be just a dream. With the mental and physical benefits of connecting with nature being well documented, New Horizons believes that everyone should be able to benefit from the wealth of nature Australia, and the world offers. So they have a bold mission: to harness the power of Virtual Reality (VR) to remove barriers and create opportunities to explore the world that millions could once have only dreamt of.

And they’re helping to do just that through their Parallel Parks initiative. Parallel Parks allows people with disability to access the wonders of Australia’s national parks through the power of VR – simply through using a phone-based app and headset.

Parallel Parks came as a result of a desire to make parks more accessible to people with disability. Given the many challenges involved in people with disability travelling to and around the national parks, it was instead decided to bring the parks to the people. And so Parallel Parks was born. Several partners have supported the project to help bring it to life, including NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) People & Parks Foundation, Qantas and Telstra.

Parallel Parks uses VR to transport people to places they may not otherwise be able to visit, from Uluru-Kata Tjuta to Murray River. People like Cath, a New Horizons customer who’s always dreamed of diving the Great Barrier Reef but is in a wheelchair.

She’s just one of the many partners who have been working with New Horizons to develop and promote the initiative.

She says: “I daydream of diving through an underwater world. Virtual reality opens doors and enables me to experience the wonders of nature. But while the technology exists we face some challenges.”

Gathering HD 3D footage is challenging. Filming in remote and sometimes inhospitable areas isn’t easy, nor is it cheap. Qantas partnered with New Horizons to provide some of their footage used for First Class passengers but there is still a need to source more.

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The project can currently transport people to:

            • The Great Barrier Reef

            • Murray River

            • Kangaroo Island

            • Uluru-Kata Tjuta

The second challenge is building the virtual reality apps. This requires specific skills and unique technology. There are no off-the-shelf solutions, which means custom-making to requirements.

The final challenge is ensuring people have access to the necessary equipment. People with disability are among the most disadvantaged of all Australians. Smartphones, and VR headsets are still out of reach for many. When Australia has among the highest smartphone ownership in the world, there is clearly still much to be done to ensure people with disability can access the right technology to improve their wellbeing.

New Horizons hopes to raise awareness of the issues people with disability face and address the challenges through fundraising for Parallel Parks and through engaging new partners for the project across Australia.

The project is off to a great start. Launched in September last year in Sydney’s Martin Place, it more recently featured throughout City of Sydney’s libraries, turning them into virtual reality parks. Parallel Parks was also recently awarded a prestigious Parks & Leisure Excellence Award for ‘Best use of Technology’ in NSW. The awards showcase the excellent work of parks and leisure professionals who deliver enormous benefit to their communities. The project is now in the running for a national award later this year.