I remember coming face to face with a killer whale for the first time. I was 5 years old and my parents had brought me and my siblings to SeaWorld. I stood at the side of the tank in amazement, the sheer size of the whale was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was exhilarating. 

One of the biggest arguments advocating on the behalf of zoos is that zoos empower and educate children. Zoos allow the public to see animals up close and personal—many species that the public would probably never encounter in the wild. For many, it’s thrilling to look at lions, polar bears or whales up close. I still vaguely recall that feeling when I was 5. It was incredibly intoxicating.

Roughly 25 years later, I saw BlackFish, an American documentary film that investigates the captive killer whale industry at SeaWorld. To put it simply, the film showed why orcas should not be held captive, especially not in small tanks. But, SeaWorld isn’t alone. Many zoos aren’t able to provide adequate habitats for all the species in their care. In fact, few do. Zoos are often sandwiched in corners of crowded cities with limited real estate, finances or possibilities to physically grow to accommodate their needs, ensuring that the animals and visitors can exist in harmony.

How can zoos preserve that sense of wonder and awe? How can the designers behind them allow the public to get up close and interact directly with the animals in a way that is beyond the limitations of tapping fingers on the glass, hoping to catch the attention of the animals inside? How can the public truly interact with the animal in a more active manner rather than passively watching them nap in their enclosures? How can zoos better educate the public? 

The answer, I believe, is virtual zoos, which is no longer the stuff of fiction as a real one is currently in the works.

In 2015, Landmark Entertainment Group announced that in China they would create the world’s first virtual reality zoo theme park, slated to open in 2018. Whether or not it opens in time, the idea behind it is truly inspiring. The company spokesperson said, “with virtual reality we can put you in the African savannah or fly you into outer space. This completely changes the idea of an old-fashioned museum by allowing kids to experience prehistoric dinosaurs or legendary creatures as we develop new experiences that keep them coming back for more. We’ll combine education and entertainment into one destination that’s always evolving.

Although seeing “real” animals in the wild is a rousing experience that cannot exactly be replicated in a virtual form, I believe that a virtual zoo can offer more with the use of virtual reality and augmented reality. To better understand the diet or lifestyle of an animal, you could see them hunting or you could become the animal and join the pack. Or perhaps travel back in time, and witness extinct animals come back to life, without the moral or ethical questions brought up in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.

And even though the animals are not real or alive, that doesn’t mean that the experience is not. This is because there is no such thing as an artificial experience. Every experience created within a person is real, regardless if its stimuli is real or simulated. Those who are wary of new virtual reality and augmented reality experiences that merge with the physical world and transform our contexts, argue that because the stimuli are virtual, it is an inauthentic and deceptive experience. I argue, that because the medium is virtual, as opposed to creating a tangible simulacrum, an augmented or virtual reality experience is a true ‘fake.’ It’s non-physical, purely visual form is one that acknowledges its virtuality and fakeness. Virtual zoos can use augmented reality as a tool to engage and interact with their guests and give them a role in the creation of their aesthetic and educative experience, allowing the public to control how they see and experience the world. And that, I believe, would be a lot more inspiring than tapping on a Plexiglas tank.