When dreams become (augmented) reality: preserving Australia’s Indigenous cultures

Mikaela Jade, an Indigenous entrepreneur, and Tianji Dickens, the lead of Microsoft Philanthropies in Australia, combined resources to use Microsoft HoloLens as a culture-preserving technology

Chapter 1: A girl in love with the land

Mikaela Jade, former park ranger, will be the first to tell you that she’s not your typical CEO. Growing up in Australia, she remembers running her fingers along rock carvings and imagining who had engraved them. This birthed a love affair with the land that led her to a career as a park ranger, where she worked with Indigenous communities.

“During that time, I talked to hundreds of Elders who expressed fear of being the last of their kind and who couldn’t pass on cultural knowledge to the next generation because kids were glued to their phones,” Jade said. “They felt like they couldn’t compete with technology to connect to them.”

The problem lodged in the back of her mind. But Jade didn’t know what she could do about it besides continue to listen to the stories of the people she met.

Then, when she was 29, Jade discovered that she is a descendent of the Cabrogal clan of the Darug nation, something she had never known or imagined growing up.

“My story is fairly common among Indigenous Australians,” she said. From 1910 to 1970, as many as 100,000 Indigenous Australian children were forcibly removed from their families and communities as a result of government policies. The children became known as the “Stolen Generations.” The removal of the children left a lasting and intergenerational impact on the lives and well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.

woman smiling
Mikaela Jade grew up in love with the land around her and remembers running her fingers along rock carvings wondering about the people who had engraved them. Little did she know that those people were her ancestors.

“A lot of the Stolen Generations, during the 1950s and 1960s, hid their cultural heritage,” Jade said. Discovering her own heritage sparked a drive to help that she couldn’t ignore.

In 2012, Jade saw augmented reality (AR) for the first time at a local university. Although she lacked technology skills of her own, she got a big idea: what if the technology could be used to help preserve culture—to make sure the right stories, art, and language were passed on to the next generations?

Chapter 2: Meanwhile, across the country . . .

. . . another young person was just starting her career. Tianji Dickens graduated from University in Australia and went to work for the Cambodian Red Cross. She put the coding skills she gained in university to use developing the organization’s website.

After coming back to Australia and working for philanthropic and nonprofit organizations, Dickens started to wonder where she could make an even greater impact.

While she’d built some technology skills, she’d never considered working in the technology industry before. But at the urging of a friend, she applied for a job to lead the Philanthropies program at Microsoft Australia.

Pumped up about her new role and bigger platform, Dickens saw the opportunity to use technology to reach many more communities across Australia.

“Australia has one of the oldest and longest living civilizations on Earth. Australia’s First Peoples have been creating and innovating for more than 65,000 years, and yet, in recent history, many in these communities have been excluded from access to technology and the opportunities it enables.” Dickens said.

Stark disparities and social disadvantages persist between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians across all quality-of-life indicators. Indigenous Australians, who make up 3 percent of the country’s population, generally experience significantly lower standards of health, education, employment, and housing, tracking near the bottom in almost every economic and social indicator.

woman gesturing
Tianji Dickens of Microsoft Philanthropies in Australia knew that her life would be incomplete if she didn’t find work that fulfilled her desire to change the world around her.

Over the years, Microsoft Australia had been supporting nonprofit organizations that work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In 2017, Microsoft decided to bring all the efforts under the umbrella of a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), which provides a framework for organizations to support the country’s national reconciliation movement.

Led by Dickens, one of the tasks was to put together an Advisory Board of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders to guide Microsoft on where it can create lasting impact.

That’s when Dickens first learned about the CEO of a startup called Indigital.

Chapter 3: A risky investment

From 2012 to 2017, Jade continued working as a ranger while trying to fund her idea of using AR to capture and share Indigenous Australian art.

“I was calling investors saying ‘Hey, I’m a girl from Australia, and I want to build Aboriginal augmented reality outside without the internet.’ People told me I was crazy. But I could see it so clearly in my head,” she said.

“One investor did say to me: ‘I’m going to be honest with you: you’re a female, Indigenous person, working in tech in a remote area . . . quite frankly that’s high risk.'”

Slowly, she secured money: an Indigenous Advancement Grant from the government, then a business loan. She also launched a Kickstarter campaign and compiled a team of developers in India. She also got the go-ahead from Indigenous Australian community leaders. Park ranger by day, app maker by night, Jade and her team officially launched Indigital in early 2017.

Users download the Indigital app and scan a purchased T-shirt or postcard to interact with bark ochre paintings by traditional artist Neville Namarnyilk. The app, although free, helps build economy for Aboriginal communities through the proceeds of the T-shirts and postcards.

Jade, who now runs Indigital full time, also began to partner with other companies, but those collaborations weren’t moving forward because of what she calls “incongruent values.” She didn’t want to prioritize product over people.

In late 2017, tired and discouraged, Jade was driving to an Indigenous Women in Science Symposium, nearly ready to quit.

“I was really emotional and thought, ‘I am done with Indigital,’” she recalled.

Then she met Dickens.

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Chapter 4: Preserving hope

That evening after the conference, Dickens walked up to Jade.

“Hi! I’m Tianji Dickens, and I work with Microsoft. We would love to have your help in developing our Reconciliation Action Plan.”

Dickens also asked Jade if there were any Microsoft products that she’d be interested in working with.

“Here I was, ready to give up,” Jade remembered. “And along comes Tianji with energy and resources. I jumped at the chance and said, ‘HoloLens!'”

As they talked then and in the coming months (a lot—Jade said that the AI on her phone has labeled Dickens as family because of how often she calls her), a truly collaborative world began to open up for both of them. Jade agreed to be on Microsoft Australia’s Advisory Board and use her unique perspective to advocate for the preservation of culture through tech.

“Mik helped us see a bigger opportunity to support communities to use technology not only for cultural and language preservation but to provide skills to create their own economic opportunities,” said Dickens.

Dickens introduced Jade to Lawrence Crumpton, lead for Microsoft HoloLens in Asia.

Crumpton took Jade on a tour of Microsoft in Sydney and pointed out his favorite conference room, named the Darug room. Jade looked at that signage and told him, “If this works out, it’s going to be really good, because that’s the name of my people on your wall right there.”

group of people
As part of the Digital Custodians program, 30 Indigenous Australian women recently came to the Microsoft campus and learned about mixed reality, drones, and AI and used the technology to bring their own recorded voices and movements to life in Minecraft. The experience empowered the participants to view themselves as tech innovators, said Jade, pictured above in the back row, second from left.

Chapter 5: Ancient cultures in 3D

After seeing Jade’s app, Crumpton issued a massive challenge: if she could get the Indigital app into HoloLens in six weeks, he would put her on stage at the Microsoft Tech Summit in Sydney.

“It was the first time I’d even seen HoloLens,” Jade said. “I thought to myself, ‘How the hell are we going to pull this off?'”

Jade’s team spent six days coding the app into HoloLens using image-recognition technology to bring Namarnyilk’s 11-foot-tall bark ochre painting of a Namande, a being from the Stone Country in Australia’s remote Arnhem Land, to life in 3D.

“When you put on HoloLens, the Namande is right in front of you, and you’re seeing him the way the Bininj people see him in the landscape, and his song and dance and his body paint and the dilly bag that’s around his neck,” Jade said.

She took the work back to Crumpton, and he was impressed. A few days later, she showcased the holograms to hundreds of technology enthusiasts.

Later, Namarnyilk also got see a Namande in 3D for the first time through HoloLens. He smiled and told Jade that it was “a little bit creepy but was supposed to be.”

Curious about the device on her father’s head, Namarnyilk’s younger daughter wanted to try the technology.

“He placed HoloLens on her. After she took it off, she had a lot of questions about the Namande,” said Jade. “Right in front of my eyes, I witnessed a father and daughter spend 20 minutes having this cultural moment transferring knowledge about Namandes to the next generation. That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about tech. It’s about the people.”

Chapter 6: What if resources weren’t a problem?

Indigital and Microsoft have now expanded beyond the HoloLens project and are partnering with Shared Path, an Indigenous social enterprise, to develop Indigenous-led computer science programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school kids.

Jade and Dickens hope that the partnership will help change the way Indigenous kids learn about technology through creating their own culturally relevant AR apps connecting them back to culture and language.

“I’m really passionate about ensuring that our people have opportunities in this space, not just to consume tech but to create it,” Jade said.

They have also launched a program called Digital Custodians, supporting 30 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to learn new technology skills over nine months, with the aim of then applying those skills to solve issues in their communities and create economic opportunities.

“Some of the ideas that were coming from the women after being introduced to the technology are incredible,” Dickens added. “Their faces were lighting up.”

hand with paint typing on keyboard
An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child recreates an Indigenous art animal

Like the satisfaction Jade felt when she saw a Namande spirit jump off a rock carving and transform into a 3D experience, Dickens feels the reward of using Microsoft’s resources to help Jade’s vision.

Jade and Dickens envision the program growing beyond Australia, to teach Indigenous communities from around the world the digital skills they need so that they can preserve and interact with their own cultures.

Jade feels now that anything is possible at the intersection of culture and tech.

“If resources weren’t a problem, what would you do?” Jade remembers Dickens asking her one day.

“Invest in other Aboriginal women, so they can do more,” Jade answered. “Build the capability of other Indigenous women to know more than I do about technology, and achieve more for them, their families, and their communities.

“And now, we are doing it.”