Ep. 13 - Emerging Tech & Youth Design

July 26, 2023

In this episode, we dive into the fascinating world of emerging technologies and how they intersect with youth design. Join us as we explore the ways in which innovative technologies are shaping the future and empowering young minds to become creators and problem solvers. Through an insightful discussion with LeeAnne Ireland, Executive Director at Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth (USAY), we uncover the latest trends in emerging tech, such as augmented reality, virtual reality, the metaverse, artificial intelligence and more. Discover how these technologies can revolutionize various industries (including the social sector) and open new possibilities for young designers and inventors.

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July 26, 2023; Emerging Tech & Youth Design



Welcome to the Responsible Disruption podcast. My name is James Gammage, Director of Innovation at the Social Impact Lab at the United Way of Calgary and Area. I'm really excited about today's episode here on Responsible Disruption. We are very interested in disruptive technologies and today we're talking about some of the most disruptive technology to service in recent years, augmented reality and virtual reality technology that will change the way we learn, play, and do business. The possibilities are endless. So joining me today is LeeAnne Ireland, who has been the Executive Director of USAY, the Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth since 2008. LeeAnne is a graduate from the Indigenous Studies program at Trent University, where she was awarded the Louise Garrow's Award for Excellence in Critical Theory. Due to her educational, professional, and personal experience, she has a strong understanding of the issues and barriers facing Aboriginal youth and best approaches to creating services to empower them to be successful. Over the last number of years, LeeAnne and the youth organization supports have been working with these technologies towards some very impactful outcomes. So welcome LeeAnne.


Hi, thanks for having me.

01:30 JAMES: So I'm really looking forward to this conversation because anyone who has spent any time in the social sector in Calgary in the last few years will have come across the great work that USAY has done in the technology space with augmented and virtual reality. And we'll talk about the specifics of that technology in a moment. But can I just talk about your vision first? So looking at your website, part of the vision of you say is empowering urban Indigenous youth to envision and attain a healthy, sustainable future while upholding traditional Indigenous values. So how does connecting Indigenous youth to emerging technologies fit into that vision?

02:12 LEEANNE: Yeah, I think that oftentimes when people hear Indigenous, they often just think of reclaiming culture, which is definitely a key part of being an Indigenous youth. But I think the other key component is at the end of the day, they are still youth as well. They're young Canadians, young people in their communities and they're very much connected to technology. And as we transition into future careers of technology, they're going to need to develop those skills and understanding and innovation in technology. So I think for me, it's about how do we find those unique places where technology and culture and tradition intersect and so, like you say, our technology goals are really around finding the intersectionality between culture, identity, belonging, innovation, storytelling, and how we can use that in really innovative and cutting edge technological approaches like AR and VR.

03:20 JAMES: And do you find because of the technology that youth gravitate towards some of the technology and the solutions you've created as a result?

03:29 LEEANNE: Yeah, I think there's two things that happened. I definitely think that they're more engaged with the technology because it's fun and interesting and has a high impact. And I think it's really fun. Not a lot of people can say, I'm part of this app, like if you download this app, you're gonna see my name in the credits. I think that's very cool for people. And so that's automatically something that they really engage with, but I think that there's two parts of the creation. There's the process part that's really meaningful and important and we embed lots of culture, tradition and storytelling, Elders, art practice, skill building. The process itself is really important and then also the product is really important because it has this really wonderful positive feedback loop for youth that participate and that creates a sense of worth and perspective and validation that their stories and what they're saying really matters. And so I think the technology part really validates them so it's engaging initially because of all the fun stuff around it. And then when the product comes out, it's really a validating process and it's super cool. I even get excited; once you publish an app and it has credits like a VR game for example, you get an IMDb sometimes as being a producer, or an artist. That's super cool, right? It's a very cool process and I get excited about it. So I see that excitement in the youth as well. And then there's not a lot of representation for Indigenous people in the technology spaces so I think that's a really cool process as well. We're kind of treading in this new space that didn't exist for us or hasn't existed for us previously and it's super cutting edge, right?

05:16 JAMES: Yeah, for sure for sure. Well, let's talk a little bit about the technologies now and do a little bit of a one-on-one I guess. So can you explain what augmented reality and virtual reality sometimes called extended reality I think is an umbrella and what they are and how they differ, please?

05:36 LEEANNE: So people will use the word like XR. XR is like the VR/AR sort of AI spaces kind of is, yeah, an umbrella term. So when you say, oh, we're leaning into the XR space, it means that you're leaning into all of those different modalities, I guess. But AR, augmented reality is where you overlay digital content in real world environments and what people are most familiar with is Pokémon Go. So you see these Pokémon in community spaces, and you go and you play this game on your device and it appears as though these Pokémon exist in real life. There's lots of different ways to do augmented reality. There's target images where you can have a mural and then you overlay digital content that makes that mural come to life, which is super cool. And you can see that with our new tribe magazines and some murals we've done around town. There's GPS augmented reality which is very similar to Pokémon Go, so we've done this to create movie scenes or art installations in public parks around the city. So you can go say to Fort Calgary and you can go on a 10 question trivia quiz as if you're on a game show at Fort Calgary, which is super cool. There's also surface tracking AR this is where some people you can see it on like Wayfair and Amazon. Like when you're going to buy a bookcase and it says, see this bookcase in your house, and then you scan your floor and you put your bookcase in your house. We use this for what we create digital board games almost and we have a language learning app called IndigiMAP where the surface tracking and then lays down a virtual board game and then the last one are portals. So it creates these 360 videos and images where it's like you're walking through a portal and you've been transported to, say, writing on stone or other really meaningful places for Indigenous people and and we explore all those different AR's for our various apps. And then of course, virtual reality is completely immersive. You're putting on a headset, you're being transported to a completely immersive experience. And we've definitely leaned into those spaces as well with our now hiring, which is an employment VR game that's going to be out in the next little bit that does skill building and we've done three other previous ones, an escape room and language learning games, and the spiritual tour of writing on stone. And they both work very differently, but they trigger your brain. What people call the empathy machine. They're empathy machines, right? So they trigger that empathy pathway in your brain, and it opens up more of that sympathetic, empathetic part of your brain, which helps people engage with the content in a more deeper, meaningful way, which I think is super cool and very, very effective. And we see that when people actually have emotional reactions when they're in a headset or when they're at some of these experiences, people will cry or laugh, or have very emotional responses. So I think that's why the technology is particularly important to keep pursuing.

08:49 JAMES: And just for my understanding with when you're talking about augmented reality, are you talking about pointing your phone camera at things or?

09:00 LEEANNE: Yes, a tablet or a phone. Yeah, definitely a tablet or a phone, something that's a mobile device.

09:09 JAMES: Right. OK. The metaverse. There's another piece of jargon, right? What is the metaverse? And people might have heard about that with obviously META Facebook and embarrassing videos of Mark Zuckerberg in meeting rooms, virtual meeting rooms. But what is the metaverse in the context of these technologies?

09:34 LEEANNE: So the metaverse and Meta is Facebook platforms, but they also created these really amazing Oculus headsets. And Oculus is part of the larger metaverse world. And the wonderful thing about the Oculus headsets for USAY anyway, is that you can preload everything. They don't have to have access to a huge gaming PC. They don't need to have a bunch of wires. They're stand alone VR headsets that allow us to preload all the information, so regardless if that school or community or area has access to Wi-Fi, you can still be fully immersed in a VR program with just the Oculus Meta Metaverse technology, which is, I think, the way that this is all going to go in the future, is not having these huge gaming PCs, which is going to make things like VR way more accessible and certainly way more accessible for us currently in the way that we utilize VR. So a lot of people will say VR and AR are privileged technologies because they can be somewhat costly to access, but with the new Metaverse and Oculus technology and these stand alone headsets, you can get a classroom set and bring them straight into the classroom, never having to hook up to any other really expensive forms of technology.

11:00 JAMES: Yeah, I remember well, actually, a few years ago when I first saw VR technology, the headset was linked to a massive personal computer, which had loads of processing power, and that's what was needed back then. But then the headsets, as you say, stand alone, that's incredibly powerful.

11:17 LEEANNE: Yeah, and you don't even need to connect them to the Internet, which is amazing and these new ones are really crazy. They have 6 degrees of motion, so you can physically move around. You can grab things; they have hand tracking technology. So in some games you don't even have to use controllers, you can just grab things with your hands. It's very cool. It's very cool technology and it's probably going to be the way that you mentioned, like meeting rooms. It probably will be a future way that we meet, to reduce the impact on the climate and things like that and fossil fuel use.

11:50 JAMES: Yeah, cool. So thank you for giving us that grounding in what the technologies are and obviously you've talked a bit about how you've used them for educational purposes and in your work, but you also mentioned empathy pathways. I love that phrase. The empathy that you can build with these technologies. Have you thought about different uses as opposed to just education? Are there other uses that are nonprofit or a social sector organisation might be able to think about?

12:26 LEEANNE: Well, I don't know about a not-for-profit or social sector, but certainly I think there's a huge tourism component that could be part of it. I think that it would be so cool to see an overlay of what Stampede looked like a 100 years ago when it first started or whatever. There's certainly opportunities from a tourism perspective that are really interesting and probably haven't been explored as much as they could be. I think AR is particularly and VR for that matter, are really good for storytelling and empathy. So if somebody wanted to tell their story about what it's like to be a newcomer to Canada or even to be homeless or houseless, those stories could be particularly poignant when you're fully immersed in that person's experience. I think that there are probably opportunities that I haven't even thought of in different sectors, you know what I mean? I think that there is opportunity for connectivity that probably exists, but I'm not sure entirely how to use it because I don't exist in those spaces, but I think that there's definitely a space for more than just the typical app, like connecting to people in really cool ways. We've been exploring the idea of urban digital graffiti, which has nothing to really to do with education. But you could potentially have a wall that people could come and digitally draw or tag a building and then it would reappear and it would be this generative process where people could keep digitally adding to certain public spaces. I think that people could really contribute digitally to community spaces in a way that's really interesting and could have high impact and create that sense of connection. And again, you're not leaving any physical mark. But I think the reason that people do things like graffiti is to find connection in a particular community, and you could probably do that through XR, particularly in AR.

14:46 JAMES: Yeah, yeah, cool, interesting. So we have a lot of listeners from the social sector and I just want you to cast your mind back a few years when you started out on this journey. Can you explain how you approached this as an organization? What was the seed of an idea? Did you work with a technology provider to create these solutions? Can you tell us a little bit about that journey please?

15:14 LEEANNE: So we have an after school program where we take Indigenous youth to do something fun. They do different things like cultural activities, meeting with elders, sometimes we take them to mini golf. There's one particular time they wanted to go to a VR arcade and we had booked these 15 minute time slots for all of our youth to go through the arcade and they loved it. They absolutely lost their minds and we could barely get them out of there. And they kept talking about it over and over and over again. And for me, this was something and one of the youth said we should create an Indigenous VR game. OK. Yeah, right. We're a youth organization that has five staff at this time. We're relatively small. How does even someone even go about creating a VR game like this? It seems outrageous and not really possible, but as a youth driven youth led organization, I reached out and I thought, OK, we can maybe do this. We can make this happen. So I reached out to a couple of funders and we had this graphic novel called Thunder. It was a huge hit. Everyone loved the graphic novel and I thought, well, what if we adapted this graphic novel for VR? And so that was what the initial idea was and we reached out to a VR provider, a VR developer, and we made our first VR game and we had I think two Oculus Go headsets and we started putting it into film festivals and it started to get international attention. The next thing that we did was we're at the Facebook headquarters, we're winning first place in digital, immersive experiences at film festivals. It was incredible and so we just expanded from there. We started creating different digital immersive experiences that youth wanted. And so Writing on Stone was inspired by an overnight camping trip that we always take youth on in the summer time. They love it there. So we were like, let's take them there. We had done this really successful escape room called unlocking homelessness, so we wanted more people to experience it. It was hugely successful. So we created Finding Victor, which was a VR game inspired by that project and then with AR we just went crazy with AR if I'm being honest. We thought, well, there's this cool technology where we can bring murals to life and covers of New Tribe magazine, and we can add all this additional content. And we're really fortunate because we work with a lot of really creative Indigenous youth. That's their thing. They're super creative and they're vibrant and they want to tell these stories and have all these ideas. So it was really easy to feel inspired once you got a grasp on what the technology could do and it just took off from there, and that's sort of how it happened. We just leaned in to taking the risk on the technology front.

18:30 JAMES: Yeah, and I was again looking at your website, one of your values is fun and it sounds like incorporating youth in the design process really brought out the fun and the development. And as you say, they're probably light years away from the likes of you and I around the possibilities and getting into the technology so...

18:54 LEEANNE: You know what I think it is, is they're not disillusioned by risk or what it takes to get there. They just see cool technology, cool idea, let's just do the thing, and they don't instantly feel like there's going to be all these barriers or there's going to be all these challenges. They just embrace it. They just want to do it because it's fun.

19:18 JAMES: Yeah, yeah. And the medium itself lends itself to storytelling. So I love the way that all comes together, both the youth and the work that you're doing with them and in the media. It really lends itself to success. So to think on the other side, I mean, it sounds like a great story that, both a journey that you've been on from a process point of view, but also the end result. What have been the challenges along the way?

19:56 LEEANNE: One of the challenges is explaining why it matters. All these things take resources, right? And so you have to explain to people that maybe aren't even that comfortable downloading apps on their phone. Why they should invest in this relatively new weird... it's like talking about physics with them. It's really far out there and you have to explain the reason why it matters or it's interesting. Or what all the possibilities are. That has been a challenge; it's getting people comfortable understanding and using the technology so that we can even get to a place where we can talk about getting the resources or funding available for it, because sometimes technology can be scary. I think the other challenge is we started this five years ago. I think it's been about five years now and the technology then was limiting. So one of the challenges has been we've had to get some resources to migrate all of our programs over to newer foundations and newer different formatting and different coding so that we can make now our apps infinitely scalable, if that makes any sense. Our apps were built on older technology that got bloated and maybe would crash people's devices. So one of the challenges is technology changes and it improves and it gets better. And so one of the challenges might be for other people as well and even for us in the future is being able to migrate that content so that it has more longevity. We've just did a rebuild right now on our apps and so now we've got this more scalable product which has been super helpful. But I mean like anything technology changes. Like we created 3 VR games that are on Oculus Go and they don't even make the Oculus Go anymore. So we have to migrate some of that content to newer technology that can really freak people out. But I think that's an opportunity to improve projects. We've already got this really cool idea, and now there's more opportunity to expand it because the technology is getting better. So I think instead of seeing it as a challenge, maybe lean into it and not see it as so much of a risk, but more of an opportunity.

22:19 JAMES: And have you found a funder or funders that have gone on that journey with you from the Oculus Go and then continued to fund, updating, and redevelopment?

22:32 LEEANNE: Yeah, I would say. I guess I could name it. Calgary Foundation has been really open to learning about the technology and also seeing that there's tons of opportunities that you say could do to expand. And one of the things that we've been considering and maybe other organizations could consider is there might even be opportunities for like monetization and social enterprise components. There's certainly tons of collaboration. So where other organizations maybe don't want to invest in their own app, they can utilize our app and we can help them with project management and guiding them through the process of creating cool AR content or VR content that maybe they just want to produce one. So they don't want the consistent maintenance of an app which isn't, by the way, not that challenging really. So there's some opportunities and the Calgary Foundation has been great at seeing the opportunities that are there with the technology and the innovation that's possible with the technology, so they've been really great. We also do these online virtual escape rooms. The United Way has been really great at seeing opportunities to create empathy and storytelling through technology in that format as well. So they've been really keen to lean into innovation and we don't necessarily understand what they're saying in this, but it's clear that this will work and has been working. So yeah, they've been really keen on supporting innovation as well, which has been great.

24:05 JAMES: That's great. And so you've talked a little bit about how the business model could develop for USAY, but what are the possibilities of the technology say in five or ten years. What will USAY be doing? What will we be talking about on this podcast in five or ten years time?

24:24 LEEANNE: Well, that's a great question. I think we're going to be talking about AI. I think that we're going to be talking about the ways that we are going to be using AI to simplify our lives, to create training modules, new art experiences, new information, and just accelerating the voices that we already have. I think AI is probably the next iteration of the way we utilize the Internet. I think too, maybe these video chats and podcasts will be entirely different. I've gone to a few conferences and things that are entirely done in VR, where we all meet in VR and you can have little side conversations, you can write on a whiteboard. It's super, super interesting and cool. And I think more people will lean into that because the great thing about the technology is you don't have to have a huge impact on the environment. And I think that's becoming more and more of a priority of like do we necessarily have to bring people in from all over the world and use a bunch of resources when we can get a pretty cool experience through virtual reality. And I think we'll see more of that in five to 10 years. AI more virtual reality, I think we'll probably see like Apple's already developing augmented reality glasses that you can wear so they'll be digital overlays, so you'll be able to walk past a restaurant and see what their Yelp rating is or whatever just with your glasses. So I think that's probably the way that things will go. We'll see a lot of more AR commerce and VR meetings and different things like that. You might get trained for your job in in VR in the future.

26:03 JAMES: Hmm. Yeah. Wow. Thar’s very exciting.

26:06 LEEANNE: It's kind of weird to think about, isn't it?

26:09 JAMES: Yeah, exciting, but also scary. But I have a number of emotions around that and a variety of things, but I think the importance of trying to embrace this technology and work with it.

26:24 LEEANNE: I always say that when I was in school, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't learn math, but when I was in school, teachers would always say you're going to need to learn this because you're not going to carry around a calculator every day. And I literally carry around the calculator everywhere I go all of the time now. It's literally in my pocket all of the time and I think we have to embrace new technology in that same style, right? Be careful and conscientious about the ways that we move forward with it, but also embrace it in a way that can accelerate how we do things and learn from one another and connect with each other. I don't think anything is as good as human one on one connection but there are lots of reasons to embrace VR and AI and those sorts of technologies.

27:15 JAMES: Well, that's a very good way to end the conversation, so thank you. Thanks LeeAnne for your time today.

27:21 LEEANNE: Yeah, thank you! I find it so odd that I'm somehow in a space where I'm talking as an authority on technology because I'm not particularly good at technology myself, but I think that if I can get comfortable with it, other people can get comfortable with it too.

27:38 JAMES: Well, I actually think talking to someone who doesn't profess to be an expert is probably a really good way of getting an introduction to the technology. So I think that the discussion with you has been incredibly insightful and it's been great learning about the technologies and the way that USAY is using them. So thank you so much for your time this morning, and thank you to our listeners, of course. So thank you for choosing to spend time with us. Keep an eye out for our next episode where we'll be continuing this theme of emerging technologies and speaking with local experts about the emergence of AI and its implications for society. So until next time, goodbye.

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That's all for today's episode of Responsible Disruption. Thank you for tuning in and we hope you found the conversation valuable. If you did, don't forget to follow, rate, and share wherever you get your podcast. To stay up to date on future episodes and show notes, visit our website at socialimpactlab.com or follow us on social and until next time, keep on designing a better world.