Agog co-founders make a big bet on the social benefits of AR, VR, and XR

Agog believes in the transformative power of XR to change perspectives and build a better world. Join the nonprofit on its journey to explore the potential of immersive media for social good.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Rise Youth Explore XR with Agog

Agog: The Immersive Media Institute

Agog is a funny word, and it's the perfect name for a nonprofit devoted to XR experiences. Let's dip into the origin of the word (because it's fun and oddly relevant), before we dive into the announcement.

According to A Glossary And Etymological Dictionary Of Obsolete and Uncommon Words, Antiquated Phrases, Proverbial Expressions, Obscure Allusions, and of Words Which Have Changed Their Significations (that's its full title, really), published back in 1832 and presented to "His Royal Highness Duke of Sussex, Earl of Strathern, and President of the Royal Society, With His Royal Highnesses Gracious Permission," the word "agog" may be of Saxon, French, or pure Celtic origin, and mean live to their wish, on a hill, or on high.

But here's where that 1832 tome gets interesting as it pertains to our subject. The book states:

It seems reasonable to suppose that it is immediately deduced from the Italian agognare, to wish or long for ardently. As eagerness and elation have the effect of giving expansion to the eyes, we use the word goggle eyes to signify large projecting eyes.

That's right: as far back as 1832, we have agog leading us to "goggle eyes" and "projecting eyes." XR is all about projecting amazing vistas directly into the goggle-wearing eyes of the beholder.

Also: Apple Vision Pro review: Fascinating, flawed, and needs to fix 5 things

According to Wendy Schmidt, a co-founder of Agog: The Immersive Media Institute, "few people forget the first time they experience XR and are transported to another place or walk in someone else's shoes—Agog's name comes from this sense of awe and wonder."

And goggles. Let's not forget that most headsets today are pretty much goggles. If you're going to create a nonprofit devoted to the XR experience, Agog is about as perfect a name as you can get.

Agog focus areas

Fundamentally, Agog is a philanthropic organization that issues grants to worthy projects. Its goal is to use the immersive nature of XR to go beyond what's on a flat screen and bring people into experiences. Its focus areas include:

  • Fairness and equity, making the world a fairer place for all people, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other way they may identify themselves.
  • Storytelling, or encouraging the creation of XR experiences that build empathy and help people learn about social and environmental challenges.
  • Partnering with, and funding researchers who are exploring how XR applications can foster empathy and drive "positive behavioral change."
  • Education and outreach, such as workshops, training programs, and other ways to help people use XR for what they describe as "social good," and,
  • Advocacy and policy, where the nonprofit intends to promote responsible and ethical use of immersive media technologies.

Let's stop for a minute and give this a think. Most of the tech industry has been exploring AR, VR, XR, and spatial computing as a potentially new computing paradigm and as cool new tech. This group believes that the very nature of XR, and the immersion possible through it, can foster a different kind of impact from other outreach programs.

I like Agog's use of the term "immersive media" to describe the results it is working towards. Immersive media (please, in the name of sanity, do not abbreviate it as IM) clearly isn't a term Agog's co-founders coined. It goes back at least to 1994, if not earlier. I like that it describes the experience more than, say, AR, XR, VR, or even spatial computing. When you put on XR goggles, you're being immersed in the media, even if you're also seeing the room around you.

Also: I recorded spatial videos to view on Vision Pro and Quest 3 and you can download them

In my mind, this isn't just a story about a new nonprofit. It's a story of a long-hyped technology finally showing enough practical potential to be worthy of being the foundation for a new nonprofit.


Experiencing the Agog grantee Forager

Agog: The Immersive Media Institute

Why immersion is different

Agog's premise that immersive media can trigger empathy might have legs.

Ever since Google Street View became available, I've occasionally used it to virtually visit my childhood home on the other side of the continent. It's always nice to see how the old neighborhood has grown and changed.

Also: What is Apple's Vision Pro? Price, features, hands-on insights, and everything you need to know

But when I got my Quest 3 headset and installed an app called Wander, I had an experience that almost brought me to tears. Wander uses Street View images, but stitches them together in a 360-degree panorama, and places you in the image. So when I used Wander to visit my old house, I was standing in front of my house, just like I would be if I was really there in person. I could turn and look up and down my street, just like I did when I was a kid.

It really shook me. I felt that feeling of "home" viscerally, in a way that was vastly stronger than when I'd peered in on my old street through my computer screen.

Also: The day reality became unbearable: A peek beyond Apple's AR/VR headset

I think VR may be able to elicit other visceral feelings as well, and clearly Agog's co-founders do too. Agog co-founder and executive director Chip Giller told me as much:

With immersive media, you can experience the beauty and tragedy and juxtaposition of what was (e.g., bountiful salmon in the Pacific Northwest; genocides that eradicated Native communities; the March on Washington); what is (stunning, imperiled coral reefs; gains in some civil rights; the New Jim Crow of incarceration); and what could be (a world whose cornerstones are compassion and connection). It's powerful stuff.


Rise for the World youth explores XR with Agog

Agog: The Immersive Media Institute

Agog-backed projects

Although Agog is launching officially today, the nonprofit has already supported a number of interesting projects, including the following five.

MIT Reality Hack: Agog sponsored the "Social XR: All Together Now" prize track and was instrumental in incorporating Indigenous perspectives into the event.

Anagram's "Impulse: Playing with Reality": Agog supported an impact campaign related to Impulse that focuses on youth mental health awareness. If you're currently at SXSW, you can see a preview of it there.

Whose Future? Agog provided funding for hands-on XR instruction to a new cohort of students at the Boys and Girls Club in Harlem.

"The City of Awe," a project out of the Arizona State University Narrative and Emerging Media Program: Agog provided a planning grant, supporting initial research and development for the project, which focuses on 14 discarded CalTrans sites that may potentially be developed into parks in Los Angeles. The project itself is still in its early stages and doesn't have its own site, but promises to be fascinating.

Forager: Agog provided support to update this project with new technology to make it compatible with current platforms and further solidify its conservation message.

Agog hopes to provide a wide array of grants in its first year, but the team also wants to work with communities to help get projects started, support projects going cross platform, and possibly even fund some more fundamental research exploring ideas for the future.


Rise for the World youth explores XR with Agog

Agog: The Immersive Media Institute

XR may be able to change the world, or at least a world view

Giller told me that the team intends Agog to be far more than just a well-meaning wallet: "Our work won't be limited to grants, by any stretch. We see ourselves as connectors. We want to connect the XR creators to world changemakers, educators, and policymakers. And we want to help introduce these emerging immersive forms of communication to newcomers to XR."

"As crazy as it sounds, these new technologies can help people feel and experience what is and what was—but also what could be," Giller continued. "Too often, storytelling focuses only on problems. We want to lift up the very real possibilities of building a better, more just world, and are agog about the power of XR to inspire action."

Also: MIT Reality Hack revealed the momentum building in VR, AR, and XR

In 1999, Giller founded Grist Magazine, a nonprofit magazine that focuses on environmental news and commentary. He is the recipient of the prestigious Heinz Award with a special focus on the environment and was named a Hero of the Environment by TIME Magazine.

Speaking of XR's unique potential, Schmidt said, "Agog creates extended reality, but it could just as easily be called empathic reality. Immersing people into new experiences, alongside those who live them, has the potential to dramatically transform our relationships with each other, and with our planet."

Schmidt is a philanthropist and investor who is also the president and a co-founder of the Schmidt Family Foundation and the Schmidt Ocean Institute, both of which she co-founded with her husband, Eric. Agog is far from Schmidt's first nonprofit to focus on global issues. She and Eric also founded Schmidt Sciences, a nonprofit "working to advance science and technology that accelerates and deepens human understanding of the natural world and develops solutions to global issues." And if you're wondering why Eric Schmidt's name seems so familiar, it's because he's that Eric Schmidt.

Also: Who's afraid of VR? I was - until I tried Meta Quest 3

In my work with Seamless Donations, I've helped thousands of nonprofits. I find myself feeling deeply contemplative about Agog and its mission, and not just because it's a new nonprofit intending to do good. I appreciate the idea that this new technology that we're beginning to grapple with, and which today is still wildly impractical, could bring people "in," not just into virtual environments or experiences, but into a way of feeling and experiencing learning that is the opposite of "othering." It could be a much more visceral way to present ideas and viewpoints than looking at a single screen has ever been.

Clearly, Giller and Schmidt feel that we're just at the early stages of XR. My experiences with the Apple Vision Pro and the Meta Quest 3 give me that same feeling. While I've looked at these XR technologies mostly from what they can do, Agog is looking at what these technologies can do for us all. And that, I have to say, is a mission that leaves me just a bit agog.

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