“Connecting the Unconnected” – can virtual reality help close the digital divide?

I just returned from an exciting week at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions (AMNC) in Dalian, China. During my time at AMNC15, I was asked to speak on the “Connecting the Unconnected” panel with Mitchell Baker, Ken Hu, Zhao Houlin and Stephane Kasriel. We talked about the many opportunities and challenges in connecting the unconnected, including the needed infrastructure for current and next generation networks, locally relevant content, applications, digital literacy and the need for new market models that can aggregate enough value created to drive market forces to serve the unconnected. One of the things that struck me during the conference and panel discussion, was that the “digital divide” will soon encompass much more than who is connected to the Internet or not.

New technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, robotics and virtual reality have immense potential to revolutionize the industry. Virtual reality is enabling a new frontier of storytelling that presents exciting opportunities. I realized this technologies promise at the “Clouds Over Sidra” virtual reality exhibit, where attendees used VR headsets to experience (with amazing realism) a Syrian Refugee camp in Jordan. As virtual reality becomes cheaper and more pervasive, it will dramatically change how we teach and train across industries.

Participants at the World Economic Forum - Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, People's Republic of China 2015. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Faruk Pinjo

Participants at the World Economic Forum – Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, People’s Republic of China 2015. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Faruk Pinjo

In the mHealth space, I can easily see how this technology could improve our work. At Dimagi, we constantly talk about how there is no substitute for going to the field to empathize with our users and to understand our field staff’s work. A 360-degree virtual reality experience of a community health worker’s day-to-day could be an invaluable tool for some of Dimagi staff members who do not makes it out to the field as often. An even more compelling use case would be to create an entire virtual reality training experience for our product, CommCare. This could save on training costs, enable workers to learn over a long time period and, with the savings, increase personal attention through remote tele-education sessions.

This technology is poised to make an immense impact on public services and the social sector. I am looking forward to what Dimagi and fellow social innovators will be able to accomplish with this tool. However, similar to mobile technology, while the change globally has already been far beyond what we could have imagined, we still have a long way to go with connecting the billion unconnected.

While market adoption of these technologies seems obvious and inevitable for many use cases, several of the markets for these technologies will not reach the currently unconnected population if we only focus on traditional and existing market relationships between buyer and sellers. As a global community, we will need to deploy innovate approaches that link all the different potential production and consumption of these technologies and services to overcome the digital divide.

Want to hear the full “Connecting the Unconnected” panel? Watch below!



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