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Els VanZele

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Els Van Zele is Content Manager at Visit Mechelen, sharing some insights on their newly launched 360 and virtual reality experience enabling consumers to experience and explore the city in a rich and innovative way.

Mechelen? A city located in Belgium, right between Brussels and Antwerp, in the northern, flemish-spoken part. Some call us a hidden gem. We also have the best mayor in the world. And so much more. Since June 2017, Mechelen is the first city in the Low Countries and far beyond that can be visited in a 360 & VR way: www.virtualmechelen.be / www.virtueelmechelen.be.

Finding a solution for a wider accessibility of our main attractions, that’s when - about 3 years ago, the idea of 360 content came up. Not only the accessibility for less abled visitors but mainly for widening limited opening hours and making inaccessible places accessible.

In 2014 we had our first 360 content, made by our partner-in-360-crime Poppr. Only 3 POI’s, but with a great accessibility impact. Some examples:

  • The climb of the St Rumbolds’ Tower, with its 97m height and 538 steps, is an exceptional experience. No, there is no elevator. But it’s a great climb. At the top, you can even discover Brussels and Antwerp. But still, only stairs. With the 360 content, the tower became accessible 24/7, not only for the less fortunate climbers.
  • Another place was the Palace of Margaret of Austria, the first renaissance building in the Low Countries,  where nowadays the Court of First Instance is located. Due to higher terror attack levels, the lovely courtyard garden is currently very limited access. Until then.
  • Or, let’s go to church. In 2008, in the St John’s Church, some fourteenth-century wall paintings of a very high quality were discovered. At the time, you could only visit it with a guide. Well, take a look at this 1500 megapixel image (125x picture quality of an iPhone 7).

All these different accessibility limitations, solved with one type of wow-content. Great, no?

We wanted to expand and make 360 content of the entire city of Mechelen. Some will think: well, that’s what we have Google Maps for! A small, but blunt, correction: we wanted to make high-quality 360 content of the touristic places and experiences Mechelen has to offer. Connecting all these POIs on our own platform – grouped on a heli-view of the city, including a user-friendly menu, making the virtual visit as easy as baking an egg. Oh, and I always wanted to fly a helicopter.

But. Visit Mechelen doesn’t have spectacular budgets, nor the human resources for top-of-the-art content creation. So, we had to find solutions. Being creative and open-minded to find common grounds with partners can end up in quite spectacular things. So we did. We found such a partner in the Belgian company Poppr, deliverer of great 360 content.

Numbers are important, we’re not that naive, but finding common ground to experiment, play, trust and grow – with mutual respect for each other’s goals, is a great way to get what you both want.

After the first POI’s in 2014, we buried our plans for about 2 years. Other projects, other priorities. In November 2016, we grabbed the time and budget to roll-out our idea.

On the road, a few weeks before the launch, we decided to go VR too. Finding extra budgets, making quick decisions. And jump. We bought an Oculus Rift, and are planning to buy more. That way, not only the visitors can have the VR experience, but the VR can also be taken to MICE- and trade fairs to inspire. VR and 360 content in the 360 way.

Also close to the launch, we found out this 360 & VR approach as a destination is quite exceptional. ‘Oh, hello, Ramona, what you say – you only know of Dubai and Costa del Sol as other examples.. in the world?’. It wasn’t a goal on its own, being the first in the Low Countries and far beyond, but it’s a very nice-to-have.

At the moment of the launch, we covered 38 locations and 604 gigabytes of material.

Meanwhile, the platform had some great national and international exposure.  We’re planning to expand the number of POI’s, experiences and implementation of technical highlights. At this moment, we’re brainstorming and planning with Poppr, strategic departments within the city of Mechelen and external partners who offer experiences to visitors. Some great ideas are being born...

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