Augmented and mixed reality (AR/MR) has been getting a lot of press recently for its applications in gaming, marketing and productivity. At Internet of Elephants, along with our partners, we are constantly evaluating the question of how emerging technology can benefit wildlife conservation, and we’d like to share some of our discoveries about this one.
Using tech, data and gaming, our mission is to connect more people to wildlife. We want to turn real animals like Atiaia the jaguar or Beby the lemur or Lola the rhino into household names. We do this by digitizing their stories and making their conservation fun, social, participative and accessible.
THE AR/MR LANDSCAPE
AR/MR is the kind of tech that, when done well, has the power to pull in the whole office to gather around a device to see what everyone is gasping at. It’s an effect we get to witness regularly.
Most people already have devices in their pockets with amazing AR/MR capabilities built in. Both Apple and Google have released platforms that make high-quality AR/MR accessible to everyone with a smartphone.
And regardless of the hardware, when it comes down to it, all of these technologies simply take your real-world environment, do their best to understand it, and then fill it with virtual stuff. You could play pool in your living room with Kings of Pool, try out furniture in-situ before you buy it with IKEA’s Place app, take care of an adorable pet AR Dragon, turn your phone into an accurate tape-measure with MeasureKit, and of course join millions of Pokemon Go gamers by finding, trapping and training virtual creatures hidden around the world … all in the name of science (and fighting).
APPLICATIONS IN CONSERVATION
So with a technology of such wide application, how can this all be applied to the world of conservation, and genuinely benefit wildlife? For our partners and us, we begin with a common pain point: comprehension.
How do you get people to really comprehend and understand issues affecting wildlife? They always seem to be happening in some far-off land, or invisible to the eye, and often on a scale that’s unfathomable. If we could just transport the audience there—to witness the brutality of a rhino hunt, to see how much a rain forest shrinks day by day, or to see for themselves how animal populations are shrinking—those typical statements of “An area the size of X is being destroyed every Y to make room for Z” would start to make a lot more sense.
On the more positive side, and just as relevant, is expressing the sheer awesomeness of it all. Few people on the planet have had the privilege of standing face-to-face with an elephant, watching lemurs leap just above their heads, or diving the Great Barrier Reef. But it’s those experiences that are really necessary in order to get people whose daily lives don’t involve nature to value nature. Could there be another more viable way to inspire the masses who can’t afford a $10,000 safari?
We think there are three immediate areas where AR/MR can make a difference, and it all starts by bringing wildlife into the context of the user.
EXCITEMENT AND EXPLORATION
When so much of the messaging around wildlife is based on bad news, it can be a challenge to remember just how exciting and awe-inspiring the natural world can be. For example, it’s almost impossible to imagine the true scale of a California redwood. We could tell you they’re often seven meters in diameter and 90 meters tall, and throw in that this is the same height as the Statue of Liberty—but for most of us our imagination just doesn’t go that far. But put one right next to you, reaching way up past the window of your neighbor’s 20th floor apartment, and that’s a very different (and vertigo-inducing) story.
Walking with a herd of elephants who are quietly plodding and grazing is not an everyday experience for most of us. Even here in Kenya you’d be lucky (and at risk of being stomped on). With AR/MR you can walk down the street alongside these animals, seeing their size in relation to vehicles and lampposts, crawling underneath them and getting as close as you dare … until they trumpet and trot off. “Awe-inspiring” doesn’t even come close.
As Niantic’s Ingress, Pokémon Go and recently announced Harry Potter license show, the AR/MR spectacle isn’t limited to the living room. When you combine beautifully realized animals with realistic and intelligent behaviors, and let it all loose across the player’s entire environment, the reality aspect of it all becomes massively magnified.
Google made a big splash earlier this year with its Expeditions AR product, focused on physical and experiential learning, and as with these tools, by placing wildlife in the context of your world, making it relatable and relevant.
You actually understand the superhero jumps of a gazelle when it’s bounding at speed over your friend’s head. And likewise the real speed of a cheetah makes sense when you have to race one down the hallway between classes ... and so do your friends when they see the video you shared.
No longer bound by static photographs or videos that you can’t interact with, AR/MR can help you explore and experiment and do so within a context that is more familiar.
Whether your interest is in marketing, education or entertainment, the moment you get your audience to feel something is a sure sign that you’re on the road to success. Standing beside an elephant and looking close up at its face is already an incredibly exciting and moving experience—and as for the starker messaging around conservation, an “area the size of a football field” actually starts to make sense when you can see it right there in the world around you.
How big is a pile of tusks from 6,500 elephants? What does the daily count of trafficked pangolins look like when piled up in your lounge? Can you fit the world’s last remaining wild Amur leopards in your yard? Unfortunately, many people can.
Hard-hitting messages that otherwise can be lost regain their power once more when using AR/MR to visualize them in the context of the user’s own space, engendering deeply felt and unforgettable experiences.
So once we’re all over the wow factor of AR/MR, what are we left with? How do we transcend what for so long has been seen as a gimmick? For us it’s about opening up hard-to-reach parts of the world’s life for the masses; if you can’t get to it, we’ll bring it to you. And when it’s right there in your living room or street it makes sense in a way you simply can’t get elsewhere.
Sure, we’ll use the wow-factor and some gimmicks along the way to pull you in, but it’s the sheer majesty and spectacle, the groundbreaking comprehension and the heartfelt poignancy of it that will keep you hooked.
Whether the application is education, marketing or entertainment, the connection we enable with real wild animals and their stories, in the context of our player’s own world, builds real understanding and passion for the world’s wildlife—and for protecting it.