BEIRUT -- In the best of times, it's hard to land one of the slots Saudi Arabia parcels out for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are duty-bound to make at least once in their lives. In the worst of times -- cue the novel coronavirus -- it's well-nigh impossible, with the numbers for this year's event, now underway, capped at just 1,000.
But in these most technologically advanced of times, what if Mecca could be brought to you? That's what some app developers are trying to achieve, in hopes of giving worshippers a virtual way to experience the holy rites of Islam that the COVID-19 pandemic, or more common impediments such as age and poverty, has denied them this summer.
"People save money their whole lives to do this pilgrimage, and we don't want to be considered as a substitute," says Adnan Maqbool, project director for the British-based company Labbaik VR, which has created a virtual reality simulation of the hajj and the umrah, a shorter, optional version of the hajj.
"But what we do want is for people to at least feel what they're missing out on -- and during these times it's the most important thing to have."
To achieve that the Labbaik VR technology, which took eight years to make, uses tens of thousands of high-resolution images that are then painstakingly placed on a detailed 3D model of Mecca. People experience the site using virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift. They can walk around the Kaaba, the black stone structure that is Islam's holiest shrine, among pilgrims dressed in the simple, terry-cloth clothing traditionally used for the pilgrimage.
"We're normally very distracted -- that's just part of life these days with smartphones. But once you put the headset you're completely removed from everything else. That's critical to feeling anything of a spiritual nature," says Shehriar Ashraf, Labbaik VR's chief executive.
"We've also re-created Mecca in the time of Abraham. It's fascinating, and we've done it exactly to scale from historical records," Ashraf adds.
The company has offered its product as a tool for prospective pilgrims to train for the various stages of the hajj, a sort of dry run before they experience the real thing.
But because of this year's lockdowns, not to mention supply chains of headsets disrupted by COVID-19, training pilgrims lucky enough to go to Mecca was less of a priority, Ashraf says. The company instead pivoted to Wuzu, a free mobile phone app that also re-creates the hajj and umrah experience.
"We aim to combine it with duaa (prayers), dhikr (repeated utterances of 'Allah') and a virtual walk-through," he says.