Phoria sees its technology as a tool for deep social change, and is picking its clients with that in mind, writes Jessica Sier.

When it comes to business, if you can’t measure it, it often doesn’t matter.

Which is why immersive technology studio Phoria have developed their own method of measuring the profound social impact their mixed media technology is having on the world.

“Sure, standing on the street corner with a clipboard might get you a few environmental donations a day,” says co-founder Trent Clews-de Castella of the company’s latest collaboration with The World Wide Fund for Nature.

“But we can actually help people experience the catastrophic damage and urgency of climate change, and because they’ve experienced something, it really increases the chances of them opening their wallets.”

Developing tools for the public good is a widespread theme in emerging startups, with companies the world over proving they can be profitable and do good at the same time.

Partnering with universities and performing their own empirical and clinical research means the Phoria team can easily make a business case for deliberately choosing customers that align with their socially minded ethos.

“We use immersive technology to drive behavioural change,” says Clews-de Castella of the company’s philosophy.

“There seems to be a public utility and a socially aligned mentality in this new wave of startups, and we’ve just have this gravitation towards using our tech which can transform the human experience for good.”

Quantifying the REWILD experience

Phoria provides the spectrum of virtual technology, including virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality.

Most recently, Clews-de Castella and the team finished up an eye-wateringly ambitious project with the World Wide Fund for Nature, Netflix and Google.

Launched in Singapore, the US and the UK, REWILD Our Planet is an augmented reality experience, allowing thousands of people to interact with digitally-created environments.

Phoria’s spatial technology were the foundations of the iMax style experience and showed a world free from pollution, global warming or swamps of plastic.

REWILD is a terrific example of how technology can be used beyond traditional ways of fundraising or education and can completely change people’s thinking.

“But for this kind of work make business sense, it helps to develop your own ways of quantifying the benefit,” says Clews-de Castella.

Phoria works with the University of Melbourne, which lends its reputation as well as its statistical capabilities to provide evidence-based reports of how donations have increased using Phoria’s technology and allows them to AB test against traditional methods of sourcing donations.

“That way, when it comes down to making a business decision or discussing plans with investors, you can draw on that delta and say, we’ve increased signups for these guys 300 per cent and that’s how we measure success,” explains Clews-de Castella.

“If you’re trying to change human behaviour as well as grow a business, quantifying the benefit is a real value add.”

Tips for quantifying social impact

  1. Find a reputable partner to assist. Universities and research bodies are often looking for case studies and new data. Offer them insight into your work in exchange for authoritative reports on your performance.
  2. Measuring outputs is not the same as measuring social impact. For example, don’t just measure how many more children are at school (output), develop a measurement for how many are better educated and better able to achieve their goals (impact).
  3. Use case studies as much as possible! Focus specifically on how your technology brought about change and remind others how things may have been if your technology hadn't been available.

Investor relationships

Keeping investors happy is one of the trickier parts of managing a startup, and while many investors might like the socially responsible angle, if they can’t see the dollar signs, their capital might wander elsewhere.

“Not every investor is going to support you,” says Clews-de Castella.

“It pays to be selective about who you want to work with. If you’re careful at the start and find partners who are on the same wavelength and have the same values, you’ll be able to keep your culture solid.”

Phoria has been based in Melbourne for the last five years, and in the early days did a lot of digital preservation and cultural heritage work as well as providing open source VR software to hospitals.

“Because it was new and interesting and a lot of the time free, our investors were like, what’s the return on investment for this, how does the business model work, but over time we’ve managed to work with the right partners and demonstrate some awesome use cases,” says Clews-de Castella.

“We are now in the position where we can be selective, and the work doesn’t have to be frivolous or caught in this advertising net.”

Lots of businesses are still caught up in using immersive reality for marketing, but Phoria sees growing appetites and budgets towards strategic implementation of the technology. As such, their social impact experience means they are attractive partners for when businesses want to experiment with big ideas.

“When other companies see it’s not just a budget thing, it’s not just a product thing, and they see we’re naturally motivated to design and work on social impact projects with everything we’ve got, it attracts the right kind of customers,” says Clews-de Castella.

Carefully choosing supportive investors and discerning customers with similar social impact goals means Phoria’s culture is inherently steeped in social responsibility.

“We see these tools are infinitely scalable - ones like VR you can put online and it’s almost like anyone anywhere in the world any time can access new information. That’s incredibly exciting.”

Clews-de Castella says technologists are in an incredibly powerful position to make global change.

“The medium is evolving and extending beyond what is passive - it’s experiential, it invites you in, it moves you, it inspires you,” he says.

“And this younger business movement, startups in particular, are lifting other companies up and are gravitating towards this attitude quite naturally. It’s amazing.”

Tips for embedding a socially responsible culture

  1. Establish what your values are and why they are important. This allows you to articulate them to others and achieve buy-in from your staff.
  2. Be prepared to dedicate emotional time to projects. Clocking off after a 9-5 day is unlikely to happen when you are working on urgent or emotionally taxing projects. If your team has thrown themselves fully into a draining and difficult project, make sure they have time to decompress afterwards.
  3. Think honestly about the ripple effect of your choices. We can use our technology to compel people to act, but if we frighten them or are unclear in our messaging, their experience could be very damaging and the consequences negative. We always ask “how could this be misinterpreted or upsetting”.