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Can VR help save New Zealand’s endangered birds? Squawk Squad thinks so

For Conservation Week this week, social enterprise Squawk Squad and virtual reality studio M Theory have joined forces to go into the classroom and get children excited about saving New Zealand’s native birds through VR technology. The experience takes the viewer through a forest journey alongside a robin bird, who encounter friends and predators along the way.

Squawk Squad is a social enterprise that aims to connect and engage people in the protection and growth of New Zealand’s native bird life. Last year, it raised $70,000 on Kickstarter to fund three conservation projects and as of September 2018, it has trapped over 1200 pests with its 196 traps and 902 funders.

Its app was launched during 2017 Conservation Week and had material sourced from organisations like DOC and Zealandia in one easy-to-access location. After three weeks, it had 40,000 kids signed up across 800 schools.

To go one better for this year’s initiative, Squawk Squad has partnered with the Department of Conservation, the Christchurch City Council, Ngai Tahu, Genesis Energy, WhioForever and AR and VR studio M Theory to create a VR experience that details the adventures of a young robin bird who interacts with friends (a Tui and Kiwi) and foes (a stoat) in the forest.

The experience requires a smartphone and the Squawk’s journey app and a cardboard or regular VR headset, or a video version can be watched on YouTube. To get kids involved across the country, Squawk Squad will be distributing 800 cardboard VR headsets to over 25,000 Kiwi kids from more than 400 schools.

Squawk Squad founder Fraser McConnell says VR is an incredibly powerful way to create an emotional connection with conservation and change attitudes and behaviours around the importance of saving native birds’ lives.

“For these kids, seeing our native birds and the predators that threaten them in an immersive, game-like format is exciting, and then receiving challenges outside of the VR experience gives them the opportunity to bring the conservation conversation home to their whanau and friends,” McConnell says.

M Theory managing director Sam Ramlu says based off the company’s experience with working with large and small brands, VR technology can bring a whole new level of engagement and excitement to any subject, including conservation.

“We’re really thrilled to see it being used to fund traps and bring Aotearoa closer to our predator-free goal,” Ramlu says.

 The VR experience ties into a wider range of initiatives by the social enterprise to get kids involved with Conservation Week, including a competition to find New Zealand’s most “conservationally engaged” classroom through an online leader board, and the opportunity to sponsor a trap and track how many predators have been caught by it.

Last year, a similar campaign by Squawk Squad for Conservation Week found Room 14 from Auckland’s Belmont Primary School to be the most “conservationally-engaged” classroom of 2017.

Check out the video version of Squawk's Journey video below in English and te reo.

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