My (too) Close Encounter With Virtual Reality and How it Sparked Imagining VR for Good

In the spirit of learning, one of our staff ordered a Google Cardboard virtual reality (VR) viewer and brought it to a recent staff meeting for us to experience. The story we were watching to test out this new technology was The New York Times’ groundbreaking three-part series on the plight of refugee children, a series that I had previously read about, but had not yet had the chance to view. In “The Displaced,” viewers follow along on the harrowing journey of Chuol, a South Sudanese boy (only two years older than my eldest child).

In my excitement to try out this storytelling tech, I threw my hand up like an enthusiastic fifth grader would. My colleague reached across the conference room table to double check that I was holding the iPhone and VR goggles correctly as I adjusted the headphones and hit play. Immediately I was walking through a room, presumably an intro to the NYT VR series. I looked all around amazed that it really did feel like I was in that room, then the article title came up and I was thrust into Chuol’s story. It felt like I was really there, floating in a roughhewn wooden boat in the middle of a swamp under cloudy skies, and it suddenly hit me that I knew what the surrounding reeds were hiding: women and children in flight from unspeakable atrocities.

My pulse soared, my breath grew instantly shallow, my eyes burned and I began to sob. The virtual reality of Chuol’s actual reality was so vivid that it overwhelmed me. I pulled off the headphones and apologized through tears to my coworkers, some of whom had been trying to capture a fun video to share about our first collective experience with VR. Instead I’m sure they recorded my face unfolding in horror of what I knew lay ahead for that little boy.

It was too close for comfort, but maybe that was the point. My head and my heart were already hooked by the story that had received widespread coverage in the days leading up to this experience and the VR experience sealed it inextricably. I’ll never forget that moment of “seeing” through Chuol’s eyes. Short of a plane ticket and dropping into a conflict zone, the experience could not have been more authentic.

Marketers of all stripes will undoubtedly tap into this possibility of authenticity to attract, engage and retain their target audiences. But my hope is that we will also see VR storytelling as a method to win hearts and minds for good.

The 2013 Millennial Impact Research report found that 70 percent of Millennials are willing to raise money for causes they care about. What better way to capture a broader group of donors than to let them have a virtual experience around a cause? Potential donors could “explore” a pristine marine reserve before it has been destroyed to understand why it matters. “Listening in” on a prognosis meeting for a cancer patient might help articulate the intricacies of fighting that disease. Perhaps hearing a VR testimonial of a client that benefitted from post-incarceration training to land a new job might convey the need to support an effort typically difficult to fund.

Likewise, given the ubiquity of mobile technology around the globe and the exquisite simplicity and lower cost of a cardboard viewer (as one of many VR methods), imagine the possibilities for good beyond donations of money. A business owner in an emerging market could virtually walk the storeroom floor and peer around the globe to get some ideas on how to improve sales rather than examining floor plans; a student could augment their studies of ancient societies by “traipsing” along timeworn streets without needing to afford overseas studies; a homebound person could “climb” treacherous trails to visit impossibly constructed temples on mountain ridges. By using VR, people’s lives could be enriched by having access to knowledge and experience that was previously out of reach.

My incredibly visceral and brief experience with VR was more than enough to convince me of the power of this technology as it begins to enjoy widespread use. I can’t wait to see what the clever do-gooders of the world do next with this medium. Though, next time I strap on a VR viewer I might choose a less heartrending topic.

Interested in using #VR4Good? Share your ideas for this emerging technology with us on Twitter.

Header photo credit: Flickr user Nan Palmero, used via Creative Commons.

Apple Watch: The Good, the Not-So-Good and the Social Good

About six months ago, to great fanfare, Apple debuted the Apple Watch. And for good reason… Smartwatches will account for 59 percent of total wearable device shipments in 2015, and that share is expected to expand to just over 70 percent of shipments by 2019. The company’s long awaited foray into wearable technology has been met with mixed reactions by consumers. Over the last few months, we’ve been testing out the Apple Watch to help our team at the Case Foundation learn about this new tool and how this innovative technology could be used to change the social sector landscape. With the latest update to the operating system (OS), we thought it was a good time for a brief report out. Below, is a summary of what I like, what I suggest could be improved and where I see potential for the Apple Watch to be used for social good.

Have your own thoughts about the Apple Watch or wearables? Please share them with us on Twitter using @CaseFoundation and #wearables.

The Good:

The most obvious thing to love about the Apple Watch is the incredible convenience it brings. Being able to merely turn your wrist and instantly see those things that are most important to you—the date, what your next appointment is, what the temperature is outside and more—without having to dig out a cell phone or open up your computer—can’t be beat.

For many of us testing the Apple Watch, the main question boils down to: “When would I rather use the Apple Watch than my phone?” And the answer for many applications is usually, I wouldn’t. That being said, there is much to appreciate with this device:

  • Complications: These are small elements that appear on the watch face and provide quick access to frequently used data, offering unparalleled convenience. For example, apps like Dark Sky that can notify you that it’s about to rain, or App in the Air that will push flight statuses to your wrist while walking through the airport. And obviously, as a wearable, the possibilities are huge in the health and fitness space. A running list of available apps and complications for the Apple Watch is here.
  • Haptic alerts and alarm: It is great for minimizing distractions in meetings as the watch merely vibrates quietly to tell you when you have a call or a text coming in and is not as disruptive as a phone. The same feature also allows the watch to act as a much more pleasant alarm, gently tapping your wrist to wake you in the morning.
  • Voice recognition and voice to text feature: When you receive a text, you can quickly reply by speaking into the watch. This feature is really helpful for driving, exercising or simply for when your phone is out of reach; with just a tap of the watch, you can speak your reply. It picks up speech amazingly well.

The Not so Good:

While the convenience is impressive, there are a few features that, in my opinion, could be tweaked to drastically improve the user experience.

  • Battery life: The watch’s battery is only good for 18 hours, meaning you’re left recharging the watch daily. This inconvenience might not be so bad if there were an easier way to tell what the battery level is, but one has to go through multiple steps to see what the power level is or set it up as a complication. A suggestion is to perhaps utilize the outer ring of the bezel as the battery indicator for example. It might also be less cumbersome if there were an easier way of taking the watch off and on. For example, a simple-to-use quick release mechanism to actually pop the watch away from the band for charging.
  • User experience: It is not clear when to use the screen itself by tapping; swiping or “force touch”; when to use the crown; and when to use the button that sits below the crown. I suspect the integration of these elements will likely improve over time as Apple and other developers gain more user data and create a more consistent set of guidelines and best practices for watch interfaces.
  • Waterproof: It’s not. While this may not be a deal breaker, it does feel restrictive given the integration of wearable technology to track our every move and heart beat. The watch could be great for sports for instance, but right now you will always have to worry about taking it out kayaking or canoeing, and if you are a swimmer you can’t use it for that. The lack of a waterproof feature just feels limiting.

The Social Good:

So where does that leave us for social good? The possibilities are endless. One could imagine an application that utilizes proximity marketing technology that pushes notifications to customers about social good deals as people walk through the mall—notifying shoppers that the store to their right is donating a percentage of revenue to a local nonprofit for every purchase made today. This would help connect individuals with the organizations and causes that they care about the most.

This may just be an imagined application for the watch now, but it isn’t so far-fetched. There is a long history of tools designed for commercial uses pivoting to support social good. For example, many of the e-commerce tools of the past were developed into non-profit donation tools. Recently, UNICEF’s “Wearables for Good” competition challenged changemakers to ideate on new uses for wearable technology, and has hit upon some incredible ideas, including devices that: facilitate record keeping; aid in the tracking of medications; purify drinking water; and even track vaccinations. Indeed, much of the “tech for good” movement, powered by driven social entrepreneurs, embodies these principles of repurposing commercial technologies for social impact.

When game-changing technologies like the Apple Watch come out, it opens up a world of possibilities for social entrepreneurs to apply their skills and talent, experiment, fail, experiment again and come up with applications for these innovative technologies that could change the world. My hope is that pioneering social entrepreneurs, like the finalists in UNICEF’s “Wearables for Good” competition, will take the lead in developing these new technologies. It’s time for social good applications to be integrated into our technology. I can’t wait to see what’s next for the evolution of the Apple Watch and other wearable tech like it!

The Future of Transportation: More than Just Convenience

I’d venture to guess that most of you reading this blog have used technology in some way to help us navigate our cars around town or make transportation from one place to another easier – from Google Maps or other online maps services (MapQuest, anyone?) to Uber or Lyft. Or you may have already started to get excited about the possibilities for self-driving cars. Perhaps you’ve watched the YouTube video on Google’s Self Driving Car Project or heard the news that Uber has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to create the Uber Advanced Technologies Center to move this technology forward faster. No matter what your experience is with these technologies, you have probably sensed that there is a significant shift happening in the world involving transportation and consumer habits.

What does widespread adoption and acceptance of companies like Uber, or apps like Google Maps, mean for the future of transportation? And how will these technologies change how individuals and groups can safely, efficiently and happily get from point A to point B? The answer to these questions will ultimately define the future of transportation in the coming decade.

Technology Advancements

Services like Uber have been made possible because of the confluence of a number of factors: improved camera technology, street-by-street mapping, ecommerce and the ever present, always connected smart phone. The same will be said about self-driving cars as they ultimately represent a higher and higher percentage of cars on the road. Companies like Google are putting a tremendous amount of resources into getting the self-driving car right. While it may seem scary to give up control of the steering wheel to a computer, the reality is the self-driving car will be more self-aware, since it will be equipped with a 360-degree camera and it won’t be distracted by talking on the phone or handing an item to a child in the back seat. The car will recognize impending danger faster than a human, will use heat signatures to identify living things that have the potential to cross its path and it can’t panic or over correct in times of stress. In fact, Elon Musk believes that one-day human-driven cars will be outlawed, as they will be thought of as too dangerous.

A Transportation Future that Empowers All

These cars seem perfect for a new fleet of on demand taxis, shuttles and buses. Fewer cars on the road that are aware of each other means that accidents will likely decrease. We can imagine these cars in our cities, suburbs and neighborhoods, but what about the great potential for the developing world? Can this transform the way in which hundreds of millions of people move from point A to point B?

Like all new technologies and advancements, those individuals with the financial means will be the early adopters and will initially define what the opportunity means. Uber has expanded from young upwardly mobile Silicon Valley technology professionals getting around San Francisco to teenagers being shuttled to piano or soccer practice in cities around the country. This is a natural evolution of adoption as services like Uber become more mainstream and are accepted as the natural way to navigate a city. When this happens, we will begin to see a market form. There will be competitors, third-party applications and after market products that will help create new companies. In this not-so-distant future, the self-driving car will cross the chasm from the early adopters to the early majority. Prices will come down and these services will be accessible to the masses.

These cars of the future will revolutionize individual transportation, public transportation and the sharing economy of groups like Uber and Zipcar. Imagine how empowering it will be for those who have lost their ability to drive to be able to take themselves to work, and then take their children to soccer practice, with a quick stop at the grocery store on the way home. Existing services for these individuals is typically binary, where they get assistance from another individual or a support van takes you from point A to point B. Owning a self driving car will provide a new level of freedom and control.

The market will drive innovation, spur new industries, lower the cost of transportation, reduce carbon emissions, increase road safety and increase the opportunity for more people to move throughout their communities. Yes, people will be nervous – there is often anxiety around ambitious new innovations – and there will be bumps in the road, but the benefits will prove to be too great to stop us moving toward what will be a safe and interconnected world.

Want to continue the conversation? Tweet us @CaseFoundation with the hashtag #CFBlog