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Internet of Elephants: Using AR to build a herd of urban conservationists

March 3, 2022 in Community | 7 min. read
Wildeverse concept art of an orangutan in a tree with a person walking below.
Wildeverse concept art of an orangutan in a tree with a person walking below.
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March 3 is #WorldWildlifeDay, and we’re celebrating by shining a spotlight on species loss, global conservation efforts, and creators working to prevent wildlife extinction. Wildeverse is a radical game made with Unity that combines conservation science and augmented reality to get players excited about protecting endangered species.

Wildeverse concept art of app player screen and an AR forest in a bedroom.

World Wildlife Day is an opportunity to increase public awareness of at-risk species and highlight efforts to preserve our planet’s precious biodiversity. Only about 13% of the population understands what “biodiversity” means – the biological variety and variability of life on Earth. Some scientists take issue with the term for being difficult to quantify and inadequately conveying humans’ role in species loss. However, scientists, conservationists, and activists agree that we need to understand and value nature if we’re going to successfully preserve it.

Growing a herd of urban conservationists

Gautam Shah is the founder of Internet of Elephants, a social enterprise with a mission to change how the world engages with wildlife and conservation. Shah and his team believe that urban populations truly care about wildlife, and to prove their point, they reference a recent report which states that over 1.1 billion people are interested in wildlife, and of them, 777 million are “wildlife gamers.”

“Everyone has a natural connection with animals from when they’re a child,” says Shah. “Movies, books, clothes, songs – everything is laden with animals. We form a connection with them very early on through cultural norms.” Shah believes that those deep links endure throughout our lives, but that the opportunities we have to express compassion for animals decline as we age. “We can donate, but there’s so much pressure to donate to thousands of worthy causes. How do you choose? You can volunteer, but how can someone in St. Louis, who is passionate about orangutans in Borneo, easily volunteer in their service?”

While people are inherently fascinated with wildlife and express deep compassion for animals, we are physically and culturally distanced from the realities of animals in the wild and the threats they face. To address this disconnect, Shah and his team have built a bridge of sorts, using mobile phones, video games, and fitness apps to engage people with the science of conservation. “That’s where games can play such a big role. We can connect real animals in wild spaces with people via technology they use every day. And, we can do it in a fun and engaging way that’s relevant to them.”

A novel path to conservation education

Wildeverse trailer still showing a person looking at an orangutan in an AR forest.

Wildeverse is a MWU mobile game built by Internet of Elephants which uses augmented reality to offer a peek into the lives of apes and researchers in the Congo and Borneo. Players become scientists and are sent on exploratory missions in their neighborhoods to track apes and support the organizations that work with them. Think Pokémon GO, but with real animals. Through this approach, Wildeverse allows urban dwellers to gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to protect nature and the creatures that live in the last wild spaces on Earth.

A recent study of Wildeverse showed that playing the game was as effective as watching a full-length conservation documentary at changing an individual’s environmental knowledge and attitudes. In other words, mobile games perform as well as documentaries in influencing positive change.

These findings are meaningful because previous academic work that looked at games as a pathway to conservation education suggested that they might actually detract from real-world environmental issues and create an even greater disconnect between people and environmental problems.

Shah says he’s receiving “amazing” feedback from Wildeverse players. “A father recently wrote in to let us know that he managed to get his kids out into the rain thanks to a recommendation from a friend to try out Wildeverse. The game got them into the park looking at trees! This is exactly what we’re hoping to achieve.”

Real-time research and strategic partners

View of a phone screen with a giraffe in AR in an urban setting.

For Internet of Elephants, succeeding in their mission means focusing on user engagement. Shah believes that in-market tests will help the team understand the types of content that best capture audience attention long-term. “Most research going forward needs to be based on trying things in the market. I want to ship new projects thoughtfully and efficiently, because the best way we’re going to understand what resonates with people will be to release and test in real-time.”  

Shah is adamant that the most impactful way that Internet of Elephants can make a difference is through strategic partnerships with companies that are experts in games and user engagement. “The team behind Wildeverse knows about wildlife and conservation, and we’re innovative in how we use storytelling to make the data interesting to an audience, but we would be best off partnering with groups that are experts in gameplay. So, we’re looking at partnerships with brands that we share a common value prop with, where we can say, ‘Your customers are interested in animals, we have the content! How can we work together?’”

Unity and the conservation conversation

Playing for the Planet logo overlaid on an image overlooking a forest.

Last year, Unity was an organizing partner of the Green Game Jam, which reached over 100 million players with content focused on the environment. Unity also hosted a special Unity X Humble Bundle showcase that raised over $200,000 for environmental nonprofits and gave sustainability themed projects a chance to be featured on Unity Play. You can learn more about the intersection of conservation and technology in the 2021 Unity for Humanity Summit video below, which explores how extended reality (XR) is building awareness, connection, and positive impact.

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This year, we’re working with a number of academic and nonprofit partners to help developers, conservationists, and climate activists understand the appetite for sustainability focused games among today's players. Unity is also a key member of the United Nations-led Playing for the Planet Alliance, whose members are committed to reducing their carbon footprint, integrating green activations in games, and supporting the global environmental agenda.

March 3, 2022 in Community | 7 min. read
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