Orbi Dubai: nature, supercharged

Dubai is the first city outside of Japan to get Orbi, a high-tech, multisensory natural-history project from the BBC and Sega. We set off on a virtual voyage of discovery.

Barely a week seems to pass without the launch of a new virtual-reality experience, or some other type of audio-visual treat.

From “4-D” cinemas with motion-controlled seats and wind, smoke and water effects, to thrill rides where you can zap ghosts, UAE audiences love to be wired into the latest entertainment technologies.

The latest attraction, Orbi Dubai, aims to add education to this and the project has impressive credentials, with the BBC and Japanese technology/video-game company Sega the driving forces behind it.

Located in Mirdif City Centre, this is the third Orbi experience to open and the first outside Japan. It describes itself as a “game-changing multi-sensory experience” and a “supercharged indoor nature experience”.

More specifically, it has a number of interactive experiences. These include immersive 4-D-cinema screenings of wildlife footage.

Much of this was filmed especially for the Orbi experience by BBC Earth’s world-renowned natural-history team, and has been augmented with smells, wind and water effects, and motion control programmed by Sega boffins.

Orbi also features simple games, such as one in which players grab animals from a giant interactive screen to open up fact sheets about them.

“We launched in Japan, first in Yokohama, then Osaka,” says Natasha Hussain, the BBC’s vice president for the Middle East region. “The next logical step was, ‘Where can we bring it that is innovative, groundbreaking, and has a young demographic that’s open to new technology?’

“Dubai seemed the perfect fit. It’s right on the edge of that cutting-edge technology and really the only place in the world outside Japan right now where you can experience this kind of cutting-edge filmmaking with the very latest technology.”

The attractions

It all sounds great in theory but how does it measure up in real life?

The centrepiece of the attraction is the main theatre, where a huge 35-metre screen is combined with two additional large screens behind the audience, to create a 360-degree, at-one-with-nature experience, screening specially-made wildlife films accompanied by 4-D effects.

We watched a fascinating film that followed the animal inhabitants of Yellowstone National Park, from bison to foxes, over the course of four seasons. Each day, this film alternates with another about the ever-popular meerkats of the Kalihari, which is sure to prove a big draw.

Taking the interactive cinema experience a step further are the Mountain Gorilla exhibit and African Elephant Transporter.

The gorilla zone is particularly engrossing, allowing visitors to virtually “join” a film crew in the mountain forests of Uganda, through the use of 3-D film, lighting and water effects, moving seats and the occasional poke and prod.

Away from cinematic experiences, Frozen: Mount Kenya replicates the blustery -25°C conditions at the top of one of Africa’s highest mountains, using a wind chill simulator. Visitors enter a small room, where temperatures drop to sub-zero levels while an icy wind blows. Images from infra-red cameras show how your body-temperature drops as the conditions deteriorate – coats are available for the faint-hearted.

Other exhibits allow you to test your reflexes against some of nature’s most dexterous creations, learn more about an array of bugs, birds and beasts, or simply gaze in awe at giant, hi-definition displays of the BBC’s renowned nature footage.

The Blue Layer, meanwhile, is a chill-out zone where you can sit back on a plush, leather sofa in a darkened room and relax as an array of multicoloured jellyfish float across an enormous screen to the strains of soothing music. It is more like something you might expect to find in a high-end spa than a shopping mall.

The verdict

Children are sure to love this fun and engaging way of learning about animals and the environment, though some of the exhibits might be a little scary for younger ones. The mountain gorillas, for example, offer an adrenalin-fuelled ride, while footage of a pack of ravenous wolves hunting a baby elk could be a little much for young eyes.

Overall, though, parents can rest easy knowing that not only will children learn as they enjoy the entertainment, but operators say it is also an environmentally-friendly experience. For example a pneumatic, air-based system is used for moving parts, rather than oil-based machinery.

“I’m passionate about the world we live in and the extraordinary elements that make up our planet,” says Orbi ambassador Nabil Al Busaidi, the first Arab to walk to the North Pole and one of fewer than 500 people who have rowed across the Atlantic Ocean.

“It is so important to educate children about the natural world and to encourage them to take ownership of it for future generations. I’ve undertaken some incredible expeditions and seen many of the unique sights that the world has to offer. Now the UAE will be able to experience this first-hand too.”

​• Orbi Dubai is at the south-east entrance of Mirdif City Centre; open from 10am to 10pm weekdays, and to midnight at weekends. Standard tickets cost Dh140.