Could VR and AR tech provide the anecdote to a lonely and divided social media world, especially amid an era of COVID social distancing?
Trent Clews-de Castella, co-founder and CEO of Phoria, uses virtual and augmented reality to bring people together through immersive experiences that create empathy – and drive positive social and environmental change.
“A lot of the pain and the things that frustrate us around the current state of the digital realm and social media, is that it’s removing us from our ability to connect with one another,” says Clews-de Castella.
“You’re at the dinner table and someone pulls out their phone and it instantly severes this relationship.”
The Australian based company’s flagship project, REWILD Our Planet is an augmented reality experience that asks humanity to take back control and restore balance to the natural world.
Developed in partnership with Netflix, World Wide Fund for Nature, ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands and Google, the installation blends location-based social AR technology and IMAX-style content from the Netflix Original Series Our Planet.
“You go through an experience, where you see a beautiful rainforest, then see it stripped away through deforestation and then you are called on in a group setting to take action to re-wild, or regenerate the forest.”
“It’s really just taking people into stories that are celebrating examples, where humanity and nature have come together.”
The social echo-chamber
The project comes as debate continues to swirl around the impact of social media on political discourse, with some researchers suggesting it’s led to a rise in political tribalism.
Meanwhile other studies suggest a link between time spent using social media and loneliness.
‘a paradigm shift’
Clews-de Castella believes AR and VR technology can play a role in cutting through barriers and bringing people from different social and geographical spheres together.
“I like to think as technology goes through a paradigm shift, it actually becomes more human,” he says.
“It won’t be taking us away from the conversation we’re having, or looking each other in the eye – but creating more of a space where we can connect with people from afar, so we feel like they’re actually physically here even though they’re not.
“An awesome studio called Within has done a project, where they documented the experience of a Syrian refugee living in a Jordanian refugee camp.
“You watch the experience and you’re sitting in a hut on the floor looking at her, eye to eye, having this connection in an empathic way and understanding her story.
“They’ve then taken that experience to the World Economic Forum and given it to the group of leaders making the decisions on refugee policy.
“To say, now what are you going to do you? Dismiss it or actually feel like this is a human that you’re going to be impacting.”
Mindful of risks
However, while the technology presents opportunities for immense social good, it also poses risks, Clews-de Castella says.
“This is a new form of experiential media, so it’s interesting, whether it will be manipulated against us,” he says.
“We’re not I guess too caught up in the worst case scenarios, because we want to really try and be a shining light to show what can happen, if we really put our energy and intent into something that’s positive.
“But we can’t be completely ignorant to the fact that it could be exploited.
“I think it pays to be mindful, not dismissive, but just cautious in the same way like a Black Mirror episode, which is almost like a foreboding warning, something that could happen, if we’re not mindful and let it run rampant and take its own course.”
But ultimately Clews-de Castella has faith that the long term outcome of emerging VR and AR technology will be for the greater social good.
“It’s creating more bridges to connect with one another, rather than pull up the barriers that are going to diffuse my ability to see you as a human – now I can actually look you in the eye and have a heart to heart.”