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Telling iwi stories

Augmented reality game blends culture, heritage and care for environment

Flood the world with digital platforms built for indigenous cultures, is New Zealand digital tech company ARA Journeys’ mission as outlined in Gisborne yesterday.

Chief executive Amber Taylor spoke about her company’s project at Waikanae Surf Life Saving Club in the second event for this region’s digital-only, Techweek programme. She is co-founder of the 100 percent Maori-owned company.

ARA Journeys combines augmented reality, mixed reality and gaming technologies to create digital experiences that bring history to life, connect people to culturally significant sites, and tell the stories of those places.

Video-gaming was overpopulated, Ms Taylor said, so ARA Journeys focused on developing a mobile game.

Augmented Reality (AR) was a physical and virtual world overlay of real and digital worlds, she said.

AR technology was used in the popular Pokemon Go games in which users captured animated characters at specific locations. When the phone’s camera was pointed at the site, the Pokemon figure appeared on the screen as if standing in the real world location.

“There was no education behind it though. If you’re not a Pokemon fan what do you get out of it? It wasn’t the geolocation find that made it popular. It was the brand.

“We wanted to leverage culture, and heritage and do more for the environment.”

Ms Taylor’s talk focused on the company’s project, an interactive, educational, AR game called Journeys of Manu, which features the animated character of young Maori boy, Manu. Tousle-haired, green-eyed, bare-footed and dressed in a piupiu and pounamu pendant Manu is a bilingual character. At various geolocations he tells iwi stories.

Healthy Families South Auckland helped design the game’s prototype in which Manu and gamers journey to learn about the maramataka (Maori lunar calendar, a planting and fishing monthly almanac). Users collect 12 taonga to unlock hidden features and rewards are in included in the interactive experience.

Ms Taylor talked about “disrupting the system”.

“People making decisions for us don’t live in those communities.”

Community input into the design was important to ensure Maori and other indigenous people see themselves in the design and connect with it, she said.

The wayfinding tool was designed to get people active and outdoors, said Ms Taylor.

Manu’s first journey centred on one of Auckland’s polluted waterways, the Puhinui Stream. The stream was once a source of freshwater and kai for iwi who lived around Manukau. As part of the Puhinui Stream Challenge, Manu appeared when users scanned markers placed around the course, told a short story about the stream, and gave users a new digital taonga at each marker.

The prototype blended augmented reality, gaming, indigenous storytelling, and orienteering.

The AR-based game resonated with people at an international technology conference in Hong Kong last year.

“The majority of them could see their stories in Manu,” said Ms Taylor.

Seven-year-old Jethro Hancock was impressed with the concept.

“It was quite good,” he said after the talk.

“It’s like talking about Maori life. We only know how to talk about matariki. I never knew there were more stories than one.”

DIGITAL JOURNEY: ARA Journeys chief executive Amber Taylor at a Techweek event in Gisborne yesterday. She is joined by Trust Tairawhiti business growth adviser Malcolm Mersham. Picture by Paul Rickard