Although aliens and unicorns don’t exist, people can’t (yet) travel to Mars, and skiing in Dubai costs a fortune, Virtual Reality (VR) is making all of these achievable by creating a digital-reality-experience. This technology takes people to entirely new places without needing to be physically present – you could believe you’re even sitting on the moon. But far from offering merely entertainment, these Middle Eastern startups are audaciously tackling some of the region's most pressing issues - from mental health to the refugee crisis - and innovating their way to a new reality. Here's eight pioneering startups using high-tech goggles to create virtual experiences.

1. GigaWorks: Their Dubai Skiing Experience  is enough to have you fall head over heels over this UAE startup. Whether it’s using VR to test drive the new Mercedes Benz, or getting an adrenaline rush from drifting and karting, this startup is turning digital marketing into an exhilarating experience for its users - including a VR invitation for the Dubai International Film Festival. But that’s not all - its Lebanese founder, Karim Saad, is setting eyes on something bigger, integrating VR with filmmaking and storytelling. ”There’s massive potential for VR on TV or video on demand, even movie theaters have come after me asking for VR content for consumers," he tells Startup Scene, as he anticipates working on a story for next year’s Dubai International Film Festival.

2. PixelBug: Awarded by MIT as best startup in the Pan Arab region in 2015, securing a fund from Silicon Valley’s Boost VC and working with leading blue chip companies, this UAE-based startup is turning heads globally. Their new addition, ColorBug App, generated a buzz in the market and ignited children’s emotions by bringing their drawing pieces into life. Founded by Dany El-Eid, Pixelbug’s mission is to add a touch of magic to corporates' strategies to enhance their customer engagement. They adventurious startup closed three funding rounds with four investors, which totaled up to $443,000.

3. Takeleap: Featured as one of Forbes' Top 50 UAE Startups and awarded by the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme, this self-funded startup is taking advantage of Dubai’s dramatic expansion in its real estate market and heavily invested in infrastructure to create customized user-experiences. Salman Yusuf, the tech savvy marketeer behind Takeleap, explains that “VR has made the sales and purchase procedures smoother by allowing the clients to see, potentially, their new home and for the seller to understand the customer's exact requirements”. Implementing the “practice makes perfect” principle, the startup also offers a safer and cost-effective way of training employees for treacherous jobs using virtual reality. The startup has over 200 clients and five offices, covering industries that vary from real estate, to entertainment, to training. 

4. Sfearia: Afraid of heights? Claustrophobic? This Lebanese startup uses VR to develop medical solutions by tackling mental health issues and phobias. Founded by three undergraduate students early this year, Sfearia eliminates the need to pay thousands of dollars to seek help, while battling the social stigma of seeing a therapist.“We are currently working hand in hand with the therapeutic department of AUB Medical Center to design and develop our therapeutic programs”, Pierre Wehbe, one of the cofounders, asserts. Focused on self-recovery in the comfort of the user’s home, Sfearia’s virtual reality content allows them to gradually face their fears alone.

5. 5dVR: This Egyptian startup has not only participated in EXPO 2012 Korea and EXPO 2015 Milano, but also garnered mammoth clients like Disney, P&G, Nestle and Dodge across the world. Founded by Maged Farrag and Ahmed Fahmy, the startup uses VR to create total emotional engagement through three variables: entertainment, education and marketing. 5dVR believe in the power of the “learning through doing” theory, using their technology as a way to drive education forward.

6. BSocial: Hailing from Egypt, the startup made headlines with its Experience Mecca App, which virtually transports users into the Holy Mecca. From being approached by other pilgrims as they perform their prayers to listening to the birds hovering over the Kaaba, the user experiences the spiritual journey without it being a substitution. Now, their newly launched Experience Quraan uses 360 degree videos to experience religious verses and stories, like the Elephant Companions story. Essentially a digital engagement agency, BSocial found a way to use VR to change the way people learn about the Islamic religion.

7. VRteek: Having reached the first place in the Samsung Entaleq Competition with their El Muizz VR application, and won the Super Arabia Competition, VRteek allows users to create their own VR experiences in the blink of an eye. Imagine virtually experiencing one of the best medieval architectures in the Islamic World while standing in your very own room - and even better, customizing the virtual experience of your interest. “It's all-encompassing and captivating in a way traditional marketing never could be, and it's paving the way for customer engagement on a whole new level,” co-founder Mohamed El Eryan says. 

8. EpicVR:  A semi-finalist in the MIT Enterprise Forum and incubated by the top-notch AUC Venture Lab, this startup is revolutionizing and completely removing limitations to the gaming experience in Egypt. Using futuristic-looking face headsets - that is, the Oculus Rift - users can either prepare to swim in space, get up on a frightening roller coaster, or even get their heads chopped off! “We gladly partnered with Face Studios, acting as our sister company, which is actively handling the VR and AR marketing needs for various clients in Egypt and Gulf region”, says co-founder Ahmad Amin, adding that “this is giving EpicVR the chance to easily explore a broader market and fulfilling the region’s need for a compelling VR and AR marketing solutions.”

Photo by MO4 Network's #MO4 Productions.

Photographer: Ahmed Najeeb. 

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