Featured Photo taken by Fred Buyle
Can we bring people away from their COVID-couch and closer to the ocean? How can we use Virtual Reality (VR) and innovative technology to engage the public in ocean conservation? We spoke with the French engineer and biologist Fabrice Schnöller who gave us some answers to these questions. His companies, Click’r and DareWin, both members of TOOL, respectively use VR technology and unobtrusive diving methods to learn about and get closer to whales and dolphins. Their ultimate goal is to promote ocean conservation and inspire change. Perhaps these ocean creatures are closer to us than what first meets the eye.
“Tech to Act”
You might be familiar with VR through using Google Earth or perhaps you’ve heard that Netflix is exploring ways of using VR for more immersive movie experiences. Click’r is now getting you off your couch, using VR to inspire you to take ocean action. VR is a useful and popular technology tool that creates interactive experiences simulating real life.
Click’r is a VR platform aiming to bring users an interactive, immersive ocean experience with ocean species from anywhere they are in the world, whether they are sitting on their sofa or are in a mountain lodge in Kilimanjaro. Additionally, Clickr applies VR to meditation. Through the technology, the user is exposed to whistles and clicks from dolphins and whales as well as ocean imagery, which changes in response to their brain wave frequencies. The cetacean sounds are pre-recorded and delivered by Fabrice’s sister company, DareWin.
This research-based non-profit consists of freedivers, researchers and software engineers which focus on collecting and analyzing data on whale and dolphin communication through an un-intrusive approach, known as free-diving. As opposed to exploring the ocean with submarines or scuba diving equipment, which can be distressing for the animals, these divers train to hold their breath for long periods of time in order to get close to the animals and study them. This allows for peaceful and organic communication between the divers and the animals.
Apart from being unintrusive, DareWin also values openness as they grant other scientists access to their research. With the data they collect, DareWin’s mission is to better understand the ways dolphins and whales communicate with each other and with us. It has been shown that Cetacean’s communication resembles ours. For example, did you know that each pod within a whale population has their own dialect?
Kids Change Adults
Click’r and DareWin joined the TOOL community soon after TOOL began, in 2019. The two CEOs, Fabrice Schnöller and founder of TOOL, Birgit Liodden, are both mentors for the Katapult Ocean accelerator program, and were introduced by fellow change agent and founder of Turnss (Sandra Ness) as Sandra and Fabrice worked together on non-profit projects. Together they explored how TOOL and Clickr/Darwin could collaborate. The important questions to ask when onboarding potential partners, Birgit says, are “Is what they’re doing helping or gaining attention or solving problems related to the ocean? Are they nice people with good ethical standards?”
Fabrice Schnöller speaks of his goal of bringing people “away from city life” to the ocean and the urgency to change our detached lifestyle”, both of which he believes his partnership with TOOL can address. By combining educational development with VR, Fabrice’s goal is to engage kids in ocean conservation and empower them to become ocean changemakers.
Though Click’r is designed for everybody, Fabrice argues, “youth will arrive at tech the quickest. If we’re going to make change quickly, adults won’t change kids, kids will change adults.” One of his goals for working with TOOL is to use BRIM, the future “digital school ship” for youth, as a platform for VR and learning more about the ocean so that youth can act on the need to protect the ocean.
Click’r is aimed at helping people reconnect back to the elements and the ocean. Fabrice emphasizes “[We] cannot become excessive.” VR has the power to change our perception towards the ocean and Click’r is working to further develop the ways in which VR can promote ocean conservation. What’s so special about this application of VR, Fabrice mentions, is that it “allows us to be capable of loving ocean creatures and have them loving us.”
VR for love, or for hate?
However, similar to other technologies, the idea of “tech for good” is of utmost importance here as VR can also be exploited for negative purposes. The technology can manipulate the brain (more precisely, the cerebellum) where our emotions are generated. Since we believe in what we see, VR can easily manipulate the brain into feeling certain emotions. For example, VR could be used to incite fear towards immigrants, or to enforce other racist ideologies into users’ brains. Secondly, companies can use it to access personal information and spy on people. Yet, if employed ethically, VR is extremely effective in productive development as it promotes a positive mindset through its ability to connect users to three different senses: hearing, sight, and movement. As mentioned earlier, what we see changes our perception; for example our perception towards the ocean. That shift in perception inspires change and the will to act.
The “tech for good” mindset that Fabrice embodies aligns with TOOL’s business ethics. As Birgit says, “When you conduct business, when you interact with the ocean you should make it look the way you left it.”
Hvaldimir – the new ocean symbol for Oslo?
It’s also important to regenerate life at sea and make the ocean healthier than when we left it for the well-being of future generations. Aligning with TOOL’s goals of bridging the gap between generation clean-up and generation dirty*, Fabrice mentions his plans to reach out to youth, through TOOL’s collaboration on digital school ship by BRIM.
Most importantly, however, is to continue working with TOOL to reconnect people back to the ocean through VR, especially now during COVID. Fabrice mentions, “We would never have imagined being three to four hours a day on a smartphone. VR will be more than that: with COVID, people will stay at home more, so there’s more acceptance and more need for VR today.”
Birgit’s goal is similar to Schnöller’s in that she also wishes for TOOL to help Click’r expand their VR product to fellow TOOL partners. She notes that there’s a “huge potential of exploring and enabling the solution of the work from DareWin and Click’r to complimentary actors within the TOOL community to help them find new partners and to open up their technology to new people.” Birgit also emphasizes the potential of VR for social sustainability in the workplace and in the TOOL community. “Burnout and stress is a huge problem so if our community members can get connected with technology [Click’r] that enables them to tackle stress better they can become more robust and prevent burnout, ” she argues.
Fabrice hopes that through working with TOOL, he can implement a free diving community in Norway and dreams of creating a new symbol for Oslo, from its current tiger to the Beluga whale Hvaldimir, which made headlines when it found itself at the Norwegian coast after escaping from captivity. Even though belugas are not native to Oslo, or Norway (neither are tigers for that matter), perhaps Click’r and their connections made through TOOL can bring us closer to them.