A new platform for endangered animals

Casey Fung is a UQ Master of Communication graduate. Now he creates mobile educational experiences and brings endangered animals to life through augmented reality with startup company, AR Shift.

Animals and their habitats are facing unprecedented pressure from the consequences of human activity like urban expansion, deforestation and anthropogenic climate change. Scientists predict 50 per cent of species could face extinction by the end of this century.

While statistics like that sound daunting, they aren't set in stone – if we act now.

Not being a scientist, I pondered how I could aid the conservation effort, aside from donating time or money. It was when one of my oldest friends, Janosch Amstutz, told me he was founding an augmented reality company, that we quickly saw the opportunity to do something we were passionate about.

Using augmented reality, we’re hoping to stop the endangered species list growing by inspiring the next generation of conservationists through interactive education.

Our latest project, AR Endangered Animals, is a free not-for-profit mobile app that allows users to interact virtually with endangered species, learn more about them, see them up close, and hopefully, get them thinking and caring about these rare species most of us will never experience in real life.

Janosch and I were both lucky to grow up in the Byron Bay hinterlands, with our family homes surrounded by trees, native animals, and a local community which actively supported the environment. Many people go through their entire childhood without seeing their own native animals found in the wild, let alone world endangered species like tigers, polar bears or rhinos.

Despite the world perceiving Australians as 'outdoorsy' (how Aussies also like to see themselves) we're actually one of the most urbanized countries in the world, with around 9 out of 10 people living in urban areas. A majority of the Australian population doesn't experience nature or environmental change on a daily basis.

Casey in the Amazon, border of Colombia and Peru.

Casey in the Amazon, border of Colombia and Peru.

Recently, I was also lucky enough to spend time in some of the world's biodiversity hotspots and while they were stunning, they were tainted with problems. I was told stories by locals in South and Central America about animals they no longer see in the wild – even in the mighty Amazon jungle – and the devastation the proposed Nicaraguan canal will bring to wildlife and Central America's largest freshwater lake. In Chile, Bolivia, and Peru I climbed the shrinking glaciers that are tinted grey and black from smog. Janosch had similar concerning experiences when he spent time diving on the Great Barrier Reef – he said he almost came to tears after seeing the poor state of the reef.

 4300m glacier covered in smog. Humantay lake, Peru. 

 4300m glacier covered in smog. Humantay lake, Peru. 

This is the inspiration behind what we're trying to do with our augmented reality app. Without witnessing or experiencing these environmental changes, it’s hard for people to see how rapidly the world’s environment is being decimated. If we can effectively use technology to make people aware of these endangered animals, hopefully we can make them see what we could potentially lose. While the app is still in its early form, we're looking to increase users, app functions, and partner with charities to further education and for charitable opportunities.

Knowledge is power –
my own story of discovery

Big behavioral changes can come at any stage in life. If there's one thing I learnt during my postgraduate studies and work in science communications at UQ, it's that knowledge is power.

By taking electives in sustainable development, I learned how to calculate life-cycle pollution factors from products I use every day, and the huge array of options we have to generate electricity and create more sustainable products. I also realised the amount of environmental studies that don't make it to the news – and therefore the public isn’t aware of what’s occurring around us. As a former journalist, I already knew about the lack of quality science coverage, but not to this extent. This became the focus of my thesis, which examined how Australian media represents, or misrepresents, climate science through framing of expertise.

I’d always been environmentally minded, but by the time I had finished my studies, I’d stopped eating meat, sold my car, avoided single use products, and had become even more mindful about where products originated, how they were made, and what their end-of-life use was. All of this is due to what I had learned in a few years.

There are so many things each of us can do to create a better future, but the first step is being empowered by knowledge and experiences.