Written by: Chris Szymczak, Events, and Virtual Reality Lead, UNICEF Office of Innovation.
Last year UNICEF Innovation asked a question: is there a place for Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) in the ‘for good’ space? Today we’re taking a significant step to verify this. The UNICEF Innovation Fund has launched a call for applications from start-ups that work in the VR/AR space to submit smart, creative and testable solutions.
Technology that provides access to information, opportunity, and choice is good technology. Any technology that does it in an equitable way – especially when it can support and benefit UNICEF’s programmes – is even better. We are prepared to support such solutions not only with seed funding, but also with access to UNICEF’s Country Offices for use-case knowledge and testing, as well as examining and refining through the support and advice of leading experts from the VR/AR field.
We are looking to make investments in: 1) software for authoring or consuming these new realities, 2) platforms and ways to provide wider access to that software, 3) platforms and ways to provide better tools for content creation, and 4) particular applications of content.
‘Virtuous Reality’ Applications
It is paramount that in our approach we seek solutions which instead of benefitting the privileged few work in the context of the underprivileged many. Hence in the solutions we seek, you’ll find a common thread of easier creation and better access. Developing new technologies in bubbles works against them. By facilitating access to the world’s biggest problems and challenging regions we provide a window to an exciting future where VR/AR can make a true impact and bring meaningful change – and live up to its considerable market size projections over the next few years.
We believe that in the future this window of opportunity can improve the lives of many people through practical, focused content. Exciting VR and AR applications are being developed in academic labs and by the private sector. Where retail corporations prepare their employees to sell holiday gifts with VR headsets, there should be room for humanitarian organizations to train their emergency workers for better crisis preparedness. If a 3D model of an espresso machine can help people learn faster and better in VR to prepare coffee, then the same should be attempted in learning how to fix a solar panel on a remote Vanuatu island or install a water pump in Pakistan.
Important VR and AR applications have been explored by academics in the medical field, and UNICEF health programmes are likely to be a natural fit for this kind of technology. Child protection professionals are trained through gaming and simulation techniques, practicing complex scenarios in a safe (virtual) environment. Resident doctors learn to communicate better with (avatar) parents hesitant to vaccinate their children, and how to ultimately decrease vaccine refusal. Diagnostic assessments are improved by performing challenging clinical interviews with (virtual) patients. Understanding complexity means not only organizing data sets in a meaningful way, but also better anticipating human behaviour. We are confident that VR can support both.
Finally, as the world has grown more fragmented and divided, we must continue to look for stories that bridge cross-cultural gaps and create a dialogue. We want to see more examples of meaningful human connections. Art and empathy go a long way, and we think that the VR horizon for capturing and marrying both is uniquely expansive and valuable.
When considering each of the above solutions in a UNICEF context, one issue will come back again and again – increasing access to this technology among the most marginalised. Ultimately, can WebVR be an answer to this? (Instant, free access across all platforms to content that can be developed by many at the same time.) This space is extremely exciting for us and we will pay special attention to how web frameworks for building VR experiences continue to develop.
How to get Involved
We are looking for a great cohort of companies intent on delivering VR/AR solutions that can solve real human problems. Submit your ideas in areas that we already know and feel comfortable with (storytelling), are promising (training, health, or education) or that test technology’s edges (surprise us). Tell us how to better create and access content. We intend to built a community of companies that recognize the untapped “for good” potential of VR/AR and the large number of users that it can benefit – and gain from.
There is opportunity in this for everyone.
The UNICEF Innovation Fund is looking for start-ups that are developing and piloting new open source VR/AR solutions.