Interacting with AR and VR

An update on our explorations of extended reality, and leveraging the technology to tackle real-world challenges

Kennedy Kitheka, Portfolio Strategist, and Chris Szymczak, UNICEF Ghana
Happy child smiling in Gonzagueville, in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire.
01 February 2022

For the past five years, the UNICEF Office of Innovation has been exploring the ways in which technological advancements in Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) can be leveraged to tackle real-world challenges, while simultaneously supporting UNICEF’s programmes by providing inclusive access to information and opportunity.

The question was first asked as part of UNICEF’s ‘Tech4Good’ series, where pioneers in the technology, innovation, and international development industries convened in an effort to evaluate how Silicon Valley and the international aid sector could collaborate to solve some of the world’s most complex challenges.

Inspired by the opportunity to pioneer the intersection of innovation and international aid by applying new technologies to address some of the world’s most complex issues, the UNICEF Venture Fund then announced a call for applications to provide startups in the VR/AR space with seed funding and connections to the UNICEF Country Offices for access to networks, knowledge, and opportunities to scale. UNICEF also provided access to leading experts from the VR/AR sector so that the selected startups could be mentored by the brightest minds in the field.

Journalist Babacar Fall, wearing a headset, watches a virtual reality video at the UNICEF exhibition at the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Financing Conference in Diamniadio, Senegal

Among the thirteen companies in the VR/AR portfolio that were selected for investment by UNICEF are:

  • Ideasis from Turkey, a startup that provides solutions in mental health care by applying both VR and AR software in the treatment of psychological conditions.
  • Veative Labs from India, a provider of VR education and learning simulations for schools and industry. The Veative Labs STEM library boasts over 500 modules of high-quality content, and a portion of its content library is open-sourced and accessible via WebXr (an alternative method of accessing content directly via the web and thus facilitating distribution).
  • Utopic Studio, a Chilean startup selected for investment by UNICEF, created a standardised evaluation that can determine the reading skills of 9, 10 and 11 year-old children. A study using statistical and qualitative testing on the results of 960 students across four schools was undertaken. Of the tested students, 97% of them preferred VR over other formats such as tablets or paper. Although the study was limited to students from selected schools, the results of Utopic Studio’s research also suggests that VR enables children with a lower reading performance to achieve better results than they would in traditional formats.

Case Study - Ideasis: Making Mental Health Services More Accessible

The team behind Ideasis created and launched VivoosVR, a VR assistance tool that supports mental health practitioners in the treatment of phobias and anxiety disorders while making therapy time cost-effective and more accessible. The solution offers full control over scenario events, realistic visuals, and real-time physiological monitoring in order to create realistic immersive experiences and provide the desired level of exposure while reducing the potential risks of real-life exposure.

The tool was in its prototype phase when Ideasis received UNICEF funding, and after conducting several tests and receiving feedback, they were able to further develop their product, go to market and acquire their first customers during the investment period with UNICEF. Providing founders the scope and means to test and launch new innovations is exactly in line with the UNICEF Venture Fund’s goal.

After initial trials that indicated that the use of VR in exposure therapy is at least as efficient as traditional therapy, VivoosVR gained academic approval as an effective solution for phobia and social anxiety, and has since worked with leading universities in Turkey to provide their solution to phobia patients. The solution has the added benefits of being less costly, more ‘controllable’, private, flexible, safer, and more time-efficient than traditional therapy.

The impact of UNICEF’s funding to test and develop the new solution is tangible: there are currently over 200 individual patients who have been treated with the assistance of VivoosVR, and over 1,000 therapy sessions have been conducted. Ideasis is in collaboration with Paris 8 University and Lutin User Lab for VivoosVR to be used for research and clinical use in Paris, France.

However, their success has not been without challenges as they faced initial reluctance among clinicians to apply VR in the treatment of phobias. As VR is still a new and unfamiliar technology, it is often met with initial distrust among potential users. Trust is fundamental in the adoption of new technologies, and people are more likely to place their trust in solutions that have proven effective and reliable and have passed the test of time.

Case Study - Veative: Increasing Student Engagement Through Immersive Experiences

Veative, which launched in 2016, applies AR to enhance the performance of students by immersing them into their learning experience. Their software allows learners to engage with abstract concepts, which in turn allows for greater comprehension of a wide range of topics and greater retention of information and knowledge. Their solution works as a tool to aid educators and acts as a complementary instructor to traditional teachers.

However, like most other startups specializing in providing VR and AR solutions, Veative experienced significant push-back from their target market. Educators did not immediately perceive Veative’s solution as a supporting tool but rather anticipated that the technology was a replacement of traditional teachers.

Veative sought funding from UNICEF to tackle this challenge and to expand their reach. The startup developed twelve open-source modules using VR and made them available via WebXr, to further support platforms and models that provide more accessible and horizontal access to content and solutions.

After the spread of COVID-19, Veative experienced challenges in creating a way for students to continue using their product in classrooms while observing the social-distancing protocols implemented in classes. Four months into the COVID-19 lockdown, the team explored the option of WebXR (Extended Reality) and converted their entire STEM library into a WebXR version so that, regardless of where a user is, they would be able to gain access to their content, whether it be in a classroom using AR headsets or streaming the content at the comfort of their own home. This is an inspiring example of COVID accelerating trends towards accessibility and entrepreneurs adapting, in innovative ways, to difficult circumstances.

While streaming provides its own challenges, Veative managed to successfully adapt their software to meet the demands of their clients through UNICEF’s funding. And again, the impact of this funding is tangibly felt: there are currently around 100,000 people (students and teachers) using Veative Labs content in 25 different countries. The startup developed Veative Limited for Lenovo VR Classroom 2.0 preloaded on Lenovo devices, which features forty VR modules including science, mathematics and virtual tours.

Mansoor,12, watches the virtual reality documentary ‘Clouds over Sidra’ with a big grin, outside a UNICEF-supported Makani centre in the Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees, in Mafraq Governorate, near the Syrian border.

What the UNICEF Venture Fund has learned from funding Open Source VR and AR solutions

VR/AR is Still Very Much Frontier

The Venture Fund, as did many other organizations, both experienced and rode the VR hype cycle of 2015. However, quite quickly, through cohort challenges, changing hardware landscapes, and lack of research on VR in development contexts, the Fund realized how frontier the technology is. This realization allowed the Fund to move past the disillusionment phase often associated with AR/VR and to instead focus productively on how to best use the multitudes of learning emerging from the Fund’s experience.

It Would be Irresponsible to not Engage with the Sector

There is a chance that AR will become the next computer interface by 2030 — in order for UNICEF to appropriately take advantage of the opportunities, as well as mitigate the potential harm afforded by this rapidly developing technology, it is important for us to engage with and seek an active leadership role in the current field.

Accessibility is Still an Issue but Making Massive Strides

One of the major challenges currently facing implementation of VR/AR solutions is a lack of accessibility to the technology. In spite of recent, massive improvements in availability, cost and on-boarding ease, the cost of initial setup remains prohibitively expensive, especially in developing markets.

Major tech players, such as Apple and Facebook, are working on mass-scale consumer AR devices, and have already radically improved availability, cost, and on-boarding ease, to the point where devices are available to consumers for a few hundred dollars, whereas ten years ago, an AR setup cost over US$100k and required professional involvement.

As software frameworks become more popular, they become an order of magnitudes cheaper. What follows is a social shift that, instead of a relatively gradual ramp up, it goes from niche interest to market adoption in a surprisingly short timeframe. If there is a chance that AR will become the next computer interface by 2030, it would be an omission for UNICEF to not engage with the tech and how it can be applied for development purposes.

Accessibility is a challenge not only from a consumer, but from a developer perspective as well. Unequal access to expertise and know-how constitutes a significant bottleneck in the development of new products in VR/AR, as well as representing an area where UNICEF’s strengths in forming connections between leading researchers and developers could potentially have an outsized impact. The challenges faced by developers do not end there; the ever-changing landscape of available hardware and software stacks imposes significant risks to smaller developers in particular, as building on the wrong platform could result in a need to retrain, establish new partnerships, or optimize assets differently — all extremely costly and time intensive exercises.

A safe strategy for teams is to rely on an abstraction between the target platform and their content. For example, by relying on OpenXR or WebXR, teams were able to target not just the most popular device of the moment but any that currently support those standards. This usually comes with the trade off of having to wait for standards to stabilize and get adopted. This in turn means sometimes some features lag behind. Because of these challenges, for startups focusing on a single platform, usually the most popular, is a practical strategy.

In conclusion, the Fund Team believes that Roy Amara’s statement holds true: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

The UNICEF Venture Fund is committed to continuing to support entrepreneurs at the front line of these developments. From raising awareness to the efficacy of VR and AR in their real-world applications, to helping entrepreneurs prove and test their next ideas, to opening doors to mentorship and partnership, UNICEF is excited to work with and fund innovations improving the lives of children around the world.