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An interview with philanthropist Wendy Schmidt on XR media, ocean conservation, and more

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with philanthropist Wendy Schmidt, who founded the Schmidt Family Foundation with her husband, Eric.

Schmidt’s approach to solving some of the planet’s most pressing issues is rooted in “systems thinking,” a holistic method that considers the interconnections within ecological, social, and economic systems.

Schmidt’s journey into this realm began somewhat unexpectedly through her career as an interior designer. It was here that she became acutely aware of how design choices impact resource use and waste generation. This awareness grew into a commitment to addressing broader environmental challenges, particularly those related to climate change, sustainable food systems, equity, and ocean health. Her dedication led to the creation of a constellation of initiatives aimed at fostering systemic change.

An emerging part of Schmidt’s vision involves utilizing new media and immersive experiences to foster a deeper connection with environmental issues. She believes that virtual reality and other emerging technologies offer unique opportunities to engage the public in ways traditional media cannot. “We are just entering this new chapter of media, representing a sense of wonder and possibility for storytelling,” she said. By creating interactive, immersive experiences, Schmidt hopes to change how people perceive and relate to the natural world, fostering a greater sense of responsibility and stewardship.

In April 2024, Grist founder Chip Giller and Schmidt announced the launch of Agog: Institute, a philanthropic organization that seeks to help creators and nonprofit leaders harness the power of extended reality (XR) technologies to spur positive social transformation, opening new avenues for empathy, understanding, and activism.

This approach is exemplified by the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s use of real-time footage from deep-sea expeditions. These broadcasts allow anyone with an internet connection to join scientists as they explore previously unseen parts of the ocean. Such initiatives aspire to not only democratize access to scientific discoveries but also to highlight the beauty and fragility of marine ecosystems, inspiring a broader audience to care about ocean conservation.

However, Schmidt is acutely aware of the challenges and criticisms associated with new technologies. Concerns about virtual reality and augmented reality creating further disconnection from the real world are valid, but Schmidt believes these tools, when used purposefully, can enhance our understanding and empathy for the natural world. She advocates for experiences that are thoughtfully designed to offer insight and foster a deeper connection with the environment, rather than merely serving as escapist entertainment.

In her philanthropic work, Schmidt places a strong emphasis on inclusivity and equity. She is committed to ensuring that the benefits of these initiatives are accessible to all, particularly marginalized communities, and that they create solutions that are both innovative and deeply rooted in respect for the natural world.

“We have the creativity and resilience as a species to make these changes; it’s crucial for our survival,” she said.

READ THE INTERVIEW

By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.