No, no, you read that quite right. This is something that I recently came across as a featured report on the BBC Global News podcast. Hardshell Labs Inc. is a start-up company based in California that has really put one and one together. They figured out that while many people care about the protection of endangered species and other environmental conservation issues, they all too often don’t know what to do about it or how to do make a difference. Others are very active online gamers, but they don’t care about environmental issues. And this is where Hardshell Labs uses crowdsourcing and social online gaming to help people protect the environment in an easy and fun way.
Hardshell Labs has developed the Guardian Angel Rover, a rock-crawling robot equipped with a webcam that can be controlled via the Internet. Players will use their gaming skills to follow the endangered desert tortoise and protect the vulnerable baby tortoises from being attacked and eaten by ravens. The rover might eventually feature lasers and other equipment to scare away the ravens, but according to Tim Shields, the founder of Hardshell Labs, just driving the rover towards a raven that has landed near a baby tortoise will have a great effect.
There is even talk of using aerial drones in the future, which should get many people excited who do not want to spend money getting their own. Now, thanks to Hardshell Labs, they will get to fly them remotely and help protect tortoises and other species. Robots and drones have garnered lots of attention in the past few years, and offering the chance at controlling one as part of an online game should be a big attraction to all kinds of people who might otherwise not even care about some obscure endangered creature.
Ultimately the games designed by Hardshell Labs are aimed at using the crowds of online players to provide the long-term monitoring of the success of the desert tortoise. Tim Shields calls what they are trying to get off the ground “crowd-sourced conservation”. The company is in the process of developing global portals and templates that would allow the application of this social gaming approach to conservation to be used in many different places and for all sorts of species or other conservation challenges.
Ecological conservation efforts are generally both labor intensive and costly. Crowd-sourcing would take care of these obstacles, as the concept has already done in many other spheres where individuals failed to get something done, but collectively the crowd could take care of an endeavor almost effortlessly.
Taking conservation efforts online and gamifying them could be a huge boon to ecological problems, as digital technology allows for a kind of “playful environmentalism” where people who may previously have had nothing to do with environmental protection, or who live in their urban bubbles where nature is some abstract idea, can become engaged, learn about conservation efforts, and do good for the planet.
Hardshell Labs Inc. took their campaign to Kickstarter to get funded. Check out their entertaining video, which introduces the desert tortoise and explains the predicament the species is in. Hardshell Labs’ founder Tim Shields is a trained and renowned biologist, who knows the ins and outs of ecology and what happens when it gets out of balance.
While this is very much still in its infancy, I can only imagine where this might go. People are always more responsive if you make things easy and fun for them, which is exactly what Hardshell Labs has figured out and is now using to leverage in the fight for conservation of the planet. If you consider that Farmville held millions and millions captive across Facebook as they tended to their virtual farms, what could happen if Hardshell Labs created a similar platform where people can share their activities with friends online and earn points for their efforts at scaring away ravens from baby tortoises, or perhaps flying a drone and releasing dispersant over a nasty oil slick after an oil spill?