A new interactive experience can be used by pest management professionals who present to schools/groups or by those who are just insect enthusiasts. Tony Gustin, director of the Gateway Science Project (a business that promotes science and insects) and creator/star of Tony’s Creepy Crawly Zoo — a dynamic and theatrical live insect show that allows students to touch and hold live insects from around the world — has taken the program to the next level via virtual reality.

Like many others, Gustin last year moved to video presentations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But he was not satisfied with the impact of his first efforts. “Our live show was a dynamic and powerful experience for students. COVID-19 has brought us to our creative knees on how to recreate that experience. I mean, how do you create an engaging personal experience without being there to personally engage?”

The answer Gustin came up with was “virtual reality.” The Gateway Science Project has invested in two custom-made 360 macro video cameras that can give users a 360° view of the world from the perspective of being two inches tall.

“In virtual reality, you are there, you are in that world. For under $30 and a cell phone, you can experience things like never before,” he said. “We can create entire worlds, forests, prairies, ponds, and milkweed fields and take you into those worlds. We can put you inside a beehive where the bees are the size of cows! It is either going to be the coolest or the most terrifying experience you’ve ever had.”

Gustin designed a demo of his virtual world on his website, www.creepycrawlyzoo.com/tonys-creepy-world, and plans to go live with a full version in March.

Users simply need a pair of Google Cardboard Goggles (about $25) and a Bluetooth joystick (about $4) to navigate the virtual site. Within the module users will find “hot spots” to explore. These areas, designated with icons, include information cards; videos; 3d models; navigation trails; and more. The virtual world will be complete with learning courses for students that reveal secret passwords opening new areas to explore.

Gustin said he does not plan to stop in the virtual world. In 2021, the Gateway Science Project plans to open a real-world location as well, complete with five acres for kids and families to explore outside. It will be an insect/reptile themed natural science park for families. The venture is part of a larger endeavor with other partners to create a COVID-friendly park in the Cedarburg, Wis., area.

“We are going to be in a COVID world for at least another year and we are all dying for things to do while keeping our families safe. I have been fortunate to partner with other individuals who plan to address this need. 2020 was less than stellar, but 2021 holds great promise,” said Gustin. To donate to this kids initiative visit www.creepycrawlyzoo.com, or at the zoo’s GoFundMe page. — Brad Harbison