Internet of Elephants uses AR to get up close to endangered species, turns their migrations into a game

Ingrid Lunden

Wildlife conservation groups have made a lot of strides in raising awareness of animals whose populations or natural habitats are endangered, and what we can do to help. Now a startup out of Kenya is tapping into advances made in augmented reality, mapping and app-based games to further the cause.

Internet of Elephants, a startup based out of Nairobi, is building an app-based game of the same name that lets users learn more about different species of wildlife in Kenya, as well as other countries and regions, by letting users select the animals and "place" them into their real-world environments to follow them around. Users can learn more about the animals through a reference guide in the app, as well as by walking around the physical world and playing games based on the migratory paths of each creature.

Internet of Elephants (a pun on "Internet of Everything") brings together and tips its hat at a number of innovations in the worlds of mobile and gaming. Niantic's Pokemon Go has catapulted augmented reality gaming into the mainstream with its premise of finding and "catching" of fictional Pokemon creatures, using the screen on your handset projecting them into your surroundings in real time. Apple and Google have also laid the groundwork for significantly more apps using AR in their feature-set with the respective launches of ARKit and ARCore.

Beyond Pokemon Go, there is a wider group of games that also rely on location and mapping technology built into our devices as part and parcel of the experience, from Zombies, Run! through to the very legacy game of Geocaching (which has actually been around since 2000, played first on GPS devices).

Equally important is that wildlife organizations, like many others, have capitalised on the app revolution both to create content about their work and disseminate it. Many today take it for granted that we can find whatever information we want simply by tapping our little screens, but similarly, now those who have the information know that this is now an essential way to communicate with the wider world, and apps that take you beyond basic reference are the most effective at doing that.

Internet of Elephants brings all of these strands together in its effort to educate consumers about wildlife, and to do so in a more engaging way.

The product is the brainchild of Gautam Shah, an American who came to Kenya originally working in IT consultancy for a large firm. Feeling the pull to start something of his own, and a wildlife enthusiast, he could see the opportunity to build a new business from the ground up to address these two things while also leveraging a rising tech ecosystem in the city.

As TechCrunch saw in our own trip to Nairobi earlier this year, where we organised our first regional Battlefield event independent of a Disrupt conference, the city is one of the thriving hotspots for tech entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa.

Innovations like M-Pesa, the highly successful mobile payment service that acts as a bank account and payment method for those who either do not have a traditional bank account or payment card, got its start in Kenya. Even more than that, it has now become one of the key examples of how sub-Saharan Africa -- one of the more underdeveloped regions in the world -- is ripe for some of the newest and most interesting innovations hitting the market today to fill the vacuum and help improve people's lives.

Anchored by Shah, the full team is a mix of Nairobi natives coupled with expats who have moved to the city through past work, as Nairobi is also a popular place from which development and humanitarian organizations run operations. They include some very interesting folks: the product lead, Jake Manion, had spent six years as the creative director for Aardman Animations, the Academy-award winning studio behind Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep; and the startup has not just a team of technical and product people working on different elements of the game, but another group focused on the content, and specifically how it interfaces with the wider wildlife conservation community.

The conservation community is where Internet of Elephant's business model comes into play. The company today building its animal kingdom (so to speak) out by way of partnerships with different groups, who can essentially create their own areas within the app, where they help build up the material related to a particular animal, either in terms of those migratory patterns or other background information.

Over time, the idea will be to cover various geographies and different groups, as well as other kinds of organizations that work with animals, such as conservation-minded zoos and preserves.

As with many other mobile games, there are a number of features built in that Internet of Elephants could potentially monetize, both for its own business as well as on behalf of these organizations, such as new levels and migrations, or new animals to unlock, and of course options to donate within the app.

I had a chance to talk to Shah at the Nairobi National Park, a wildlife park just next to the city with the skyline surreally visible at the horizon of the savannah. That juxaposition seemed to make for a fitting location to talk about how Internet of Elephants is using tech to shed more light onto a very non-tech part of our world.