When some people visit Uluru, they just see a rock.
Traditional owner Sammy Wilson wants them to see what the rock means, get a feel for Anangu culture and law, and understand why it’s important to Aboriginal people.
It’s why he agreed to take part in Google’s expansion of virtual reality technology into Australia’s most sacred site.
Traditional owner Sammy Wilson and Tourism NT spokeswoman Lindsay Dixon at Uluru, where they filmed footage for Google Street View. Picture: Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson/News Corp Australia - Source:Supplied
Wilson narrates 360-degree interactive stories about Uluru produced alongside a Google Street View experience, explaining some of the creation stories centred around the site.
“We hope they will learn something,” he says. “We want people to look so they might come visit the place. We want to teach them to learn and understand our culture.”
But getting the Anangu stories online, before a worldwide audience, and showing off Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park, was not a straightforward exercise.
Making it happen was tricky for two reasons: it needed to be about more than only a place, and it needed to respect a host of cultural sensitivities about what imagery and stories could be publicly shared.
“Over those two years, it became obvious we needed to capture more than just the physical beauty and imagery of this location. We needed to capture the Tjukurpa, which is the traditional law, the stories, the song, the rich cultural heritage that is just interwoven in the physical beauty,” he says.
“That’s why we spent the time rather than rushing something out. This is not one of these projects where you can launch and iterate.”
Tourism NT spokeswoman Lindsay Dixon volunteered to carry Google Street View cameras around the Northern Territory, including Uluru, to upload virtual reality experiences. Picture: Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson/News Corp Australia - Source:Supplied
In addition to ensuring no restricted areas were shown, there was the physical job of capturing areas around Uluru to be seen online.
That fell to Lindsay Dixon from Tourism NT, who volunteered to wear Google’s specialised 20kg backpack loaded with cameras and hard drives.
The footage was captured over two days of hiking, mostly at noon to avoid shadows, though Dixon wore the backpack for much longer.
“(Trekking through Uluru was) part of a wider project so we captured a whole heap of places around the Territory and we did that over the course of two months,” she says.
“They’ll be rolling them out and this is just kicking them all off.”
Google Australia engineering director Casey Whitelaw says he hopes the virtual experiences will encourage more tourists to visit the Northern Territory.
While some question whether virtual reality experiences help or hurt tourism, Whitelaw says it will simply help tourists to be more informed about their destination.
“(Some people ask) does more information about a site mean you don’t need to visit any more, and we’ve got every signal that points in the opposite direction,” he says.
“The more that people can get an understanding before they go ... that drives them to be more curious and it’s spurring more travel.”