Robots, holograms and virtual reality experiences were unveiled on Thursday as part of a project that is raising awareness about protected sites.

The project, called CORALLO, aims at fostering a greater awareness towards Natura 2000 sites while promoting “sustainable enjoyment”, University of Malta professor Alan Deidun told marine stakeholders at the launch.

The project consists of initiatives aimed at teaching visitors of such sites about the beauty of the protected areas while also taking that information to places that normally would not have access to it.

One such innovation is Olga the Robot, a waist-high humanoid robot that incentives children to interact with it as they learn about the environment that surrounds them.

Olga the Robot speaking while someone tries out the VR underwater experience. Photo: Daniel TihnOlga the Robot speaking while someone tries out the VR underwater experience. Photo: Daniel Tihn

On Olga’s chest is a touchscreen tablet that allows users to navigate several options: informative video clips, a question-and-answer quiz or taking a selfie.

Olga has its own quirks: when someone puts their hand on Olga’s head, the small robot moves around while it giggles, informing people that it is indeed ticklish.

Another device - a windmill-shaped gadget creates holographic illusions of blue whales swimming through the air followed by schools of fish.

A video showing the 'holograms' in action which, in person, look smooth. Video: Daniel Tihn

VR headsets will meanwhile take users on a 360° underwater experience with along the seabed and through rocky caverns.

These various tools are currently displayed across several Natura 2000 sites.

Olga along with the VR headsets can be found at the Haġar Qim Park Visitor Centre, while Għar Dalam has interactive boards

“Many people may not be aware of the unique ecological importance of these sites,” Heritage Minister Owen Bonnici said at the launch.

Bonnici said the CORALLO project was a group effort, adding that change can only be brought about through collaboration.

“It is our collective responsibility to be stewards of the natural world,” he said.

Heritage Minister Owen Bonnici speaking at Thursday's event. Photo: Daniel TihnHeritage Minister Owen Bonnici speaking at Thursday's event. Photo: Daniel Tihn

A handbook detailing best codes of practice when visiting these sites has also been published. Among others, visitors are discouraged from feeding animals at such sites, as this could alter their routine and make them more vulnerable to capture.

Launched in 2019, the project is led by seven organisations - three based in Malta and four in Sicily, an island that is also facing intense urbanisation pressure.

The Maltese entities are the University of Malta, the Environment and Resources Authority and Heritage Malta.

The Regional Environmental Protection Agency of Sicily, the University of Palermo, the Plemmirio Consortium and the Consorzio di Ricerca per lo Sviluppo di Sistemi Innovativi Agroambientali make up the Sicilian side of the project.

Although the CORALLO project will be coming to a close in September, Deidun said that the collaborators will be exhibiting their work during Science in the City, showcasing Olga and the VR experiences.

Deidun also looked to the future where there may be the possibility of another CORALLO project. If that were to happen, the academic said his aim would be to take the sea to places where it is not regularly available. “Places such as hospitals and even prisons, why not,” he asked the room rhetorically.

Deidun urged people to watch a programme filmed by Euronews about the project which will be available online and on TV on July 25. 

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