In this interview with TechBullion, Voiijer co-founder and Chief Product Officer, Michelle Excell shares how the platform’s launch is poised to rebuild humans’ relationship with nature and fast-track the next generation of scientific discovery. The app launched its public beta over the summer, quadrupling its user base and is on track to expand its reach and offerings to 50 million explorers, field scientists, and nature enthusiasts. The idea for Voiijer was born when avid adventurer and Explorers’ Club member, Michael Barth (Voiijer CEO + co-founder), was on an expedition in the Gobi Desert making groundbreaking discoveries but lacked the tools to share his findings with a wider, like-minded audience. Voiijer allows users to combine photos, videos, written notes, audio recordings, and even 3D scans, enriching a shared true multimedia experience beyond the capabilities, character counts, and clutter of other social sharing-only platforms.
Please tell us more about yourself and your journey that’s brought you here to Voiijer today?
My name is Michelle Excell, co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Voiijer. I lead product design and development for the Voiijer platform.
My career in digital experience and production began in 2002 at a full-service design and development agency in Auckland, New Zealand. After many years spent on the production side, I transitioned to leading the digital discipline at advertising agencies. In 2016 I launched an innovation and immersive technology consultancy in San Francisco. Then I co-founded Voiijer in 2019. After 20 years abroad in Australia and the USA, we have just returned to my native New Zealand.
My focus since 2016 has been creative and immersive technology, which encompasses augmented and virtual reality, the spatial web and web3, AI, prototyping, and a healthy obsession with photogrammetry and volumetric production. This focus allowed me to consult, guest lecture, and speak all over the world – including, a career highlight, being invited to run an AR workshop at TED Women. But my dream when I was young was to become something with -ologist at the end. And it was my career in technology that led me to work alongside some of the brightest -ologists on the planet.
In 2018 I received an email from my future Voiijer co-founder Michael Barth titled “Dinosaur VR/AR”. He described an expedition to the Mongolian Gobi Desert employing multimodal data collection techniques including NASA satellite technology to create fossil prediction maps in partnership with the Institute of Paleontology, Mongolia. An email to which I replied “this is a once-in-a-lifetime brief…”
After creating a VR experience that told “the story of the science behind the expedition” that we premiered at the Explorers Club Annual Dinner (ECAD) in 2019, we realized there was potential to reach and activate so many more explorers and their stories. Shortly thereafter, Voiijer as we know it was born.
What is Voiijer and what unique solutions do you provide?
Voiijer is a groundbreaking social media platform, elevating the power of exploration via user-generated content and storytelling to meaningfully unite people and the natural world. While the app is available to everyone it was vital to us that we design it to be truly useful to explorers and field scientists at its core. The tool they’ve been missing.
The app’s multimedia observation function is unique. We combine photo, video and audio capture and support 3D scans and assets. Supporting multimodal data collection is key. Audio and 3D/AR scans transport people. 3D specifically is so good at relaying scale and creates a sense of presence. Right now we support .USDZ as we are iPhone-only, but we’ll add more universal file formats soon.
But Voiijer is not just for collection, it’s for storytelling. Your collection tool is also the platform to share your findings, your story with a wide and engaged audience. Where other social platforms offer a snapshot, a beautiful image, Voiijer allows you to share the full story. Voiij Stories are not posts; each is a series of observations that allows others to feel part of the journey, the process, the discovery. And this format is also a natural fit for How-Tos and multi-step tutorials.
Voiijer also has multi-user features for collaboration. You can invite others to contribute and collaborate their observations to a shared Voiij. Perfect for team expeditions, projects, and research work. You can collaborate in private mode, or share your Voiij Stories with the community.
What inspired the Voiijer platform, who are the users, who is it for, who needs it the most and how does it benefit users?
Over the past few decades, humans’ relationship with nature has been drastically declining across the world. These vanishing interactions are leading to a loss of care for nature, which has resounding implications for the wellbeing of the entire planet. Voiijer aims to reconnect people around the world with nature: Users post content, share stories, and amplify discoveries making exploration accessible to all.
The genesis of the app was exploration. From Michael and the team in the Mongolian Gobi Desert in 2018 making groundbreaking discoveries, thousands of data points, and struggling to share their journey and findings with a wide audience. And from the real struggles we heard from hundreds of explorers and scientists about the manual collection, aggregation and ultimately distribution of their discoveries and journeys.
Our current user groups are explorers, scientists and nature enthusiasts. They have been core to the design of the product, but you don’t have to identify as a professional explorer to use it. It is for anyone who follows their curiosity and seeks to find wonder in the natural world and the world around them in general.
The benefits are many. For explorers, it is the tool you’ve been missing and the storytelling platform to reach a wide global audience. For everyone, Voiijer is more multimedia than shared albums, more flexible than file servers and project management tools, and more persistent than email and Slack threads.
Yet it is complementary to platforms you use every day. Post that Instagram Story, that TikTok, but tell the full story on Voiijer. We fill a real need, a gap, and we focus on what we know and do well.
Could you give us a walkthrough of the Voiijer social media platform features? Tell us how to use the platform and how it works?
Browse incredible stories from explorers, scientists and real people like you from all over the world. Comment, like, save/bookmark, and share. Check out the locations, deep-dive into the tags, and see, listen and experience each step of the way. Immerse yourself.
And create your own Voiijs. You can open a Voiij any time, for any thing. It will only be visible to you and any collaborators you invite, until you choose to publish it. A Voiij has two parts: the Story and the Collection. You can collect first and tell your story later. This is especially useful if you’re doing a lot of observing and collecting initially, over a day or months. Or you can go directly to the story if you’re ready to share it with the community.
Whether you are in planning mode, or in the field. Whether you want a safe place to keep observations you’ve been making for months, or you’re ready to tell a story about something that happened years ago and breathe new life into archival content you never shared. Voiijer is the missing link between collection and storytelling.
Tell us more about the platform infrastructure, the technology behind the platform and the security measures in place to ensure user data protection?
The platform relies on best-in-class services provided by Microsoft for Cloud and cutting-edge implementation for the iOS platform using native Apple SDK. We are a lean start-up, but it was important to us to have a robust and secure stack from Day One.
We launched with a native iOS app based on our roadmap and speed to market. Native allowed us to utilize USDZ for 3D and the beautiful UI that so many have commented on. And it will allow us to launch offline mode more easily, which is a top priority. Now that the app is live our focus is on making it useful to more people, more of the time. So an Android version will follow soon.
We apply best practices in backend development provided by Azure Cloud solution, including an encrypted database with separated storage for keys, Azure Key Vault, intensely restrictive roles-based permissions management, and OAuth 2.0-based authentication. We do not store any sensitive end-user information except info needed for authentication.
And ownership and attribution is really important to the integrity of the platform. This means observations cannot be downloaded by other users and all content is clearly attributed to the person who made the observation on the platform.
How big is the market demand for this groundbreaking social media platform, could you give us more insights into this industry and what it entails?
Millions of us dream of adventure, Voiijer brings us there. And the data backs it up. 75% of adults in the US consider themselves “nature enthusiasts” and prioritize spending time in nature. Two of the top six corporate Instagram account are focused on exploration (#2 Nat Geo: 257M & #6 NASA: 87M). 3.2 billion people worldwide follow wildlife accounts on social media.
Science and exploration have a storytelling problem and too much goes unseen, untold. Social media has an integrity and substance issue, it is not known for depth. Voiijer is perfectly poised to take advantage of these trends and gaps. We have a SAM in the hundreds of millions and can leverage a creator economy that is in excess of $100B since 2022. We will harness that to create a positive impact for our planet.
Who are the brains behind this platform and what makes you the best in the industry? Do you have any competitors for Voiijer, what makes you better?
Our founding team is a potent combination of experts in exploration, product innovation and marketing:
- Seasoned explorer Michael Barth, a member of the Explorer’s Club and fellow of the U.K.-based Royal Geographical Society;
- Michelle Excell, whose rich 20+ year career in creative technology has centered on bringing to life multi-platform interactive projects
- Greg McConnell, a global marketing executive who has worked with brands including Rolex, Tudor, and Puma
And from Day One, we’ve had some of the brightest, most passionate explorers, adventurers, scientists and science communicators on the planet guiding and advising us. Including global pioneer in forest canopy ecology Dr. Meg Lowman,esteemed mountaineer Kenton Cool, Mars astrobiologist Dr. Angélica Anglés, to name just a few. We are for explorers, by explorers, and that sets us apart.
Voiijer serves the gaps and shortcomings of social and traditional media when it comes to the natural world, and science and education when it comes to accessibility and storytelling. But it is our ability to complement existing platforms and behaviours that contributes to our success.
What are the success stories so far since the launch of Voiijer and what response has the platform received from the community and users?
I’m going to let our users tell you in their words:
- “Imagine sharing those turning point moments of scientific discovery as they happen while exploring the world’s rain forests, and watching them become a resource for understanding the universe. And because of Voiijer, we can all be a part of that.” Dr. Meg Lowman
- “Voiijer is going to focus on adventure and nature in a way that we haven’t seen up to now.” Kenton Cool
And some of my favourite Voiijs Stories shared recently:
- Where Can You See the Solar Eclipse in October 2023? By Richard J. Bartlett. I pulled this one out at a dinner party when someone mentioned the eclipse, and we figured out how to see it the next day!
- What’s inside the only accessible volcanic magma chamber in the world? By Dration.
- Are there still Ama Freedivers in Japan? By Edges of Earth
- What can we do as adventurers and explorers to help with the plastic crisis? By Maddog Adventures
It has been great to get feedback and feature requests from users that mirror our roadmap. You never know if you’re getting it right until you unleash a product on the public. We’ve also had overwhelming feedback from new users that the app is beautiful. We designed it with such intention to be an inviting place people would want to dwell and share their stories.
Personally I would like to add that I am using Voiijer to document our relocation back to Aotearoa for tons of friends and family members in the US and beyond. And though we are keeping it private (I added everyone as collaborators so they have exclusive access) it is so rewarding to have built something that is so useful and meaningful in my day-to-day life.
What do you have planned for the future of this platform and where do you hope to see Voiijer in the next 5 years?
I’ve mentioned it already, but the focus now is on being more useful to more people, more of the time. So our immediate priorities are Offline Mode and the Android App. And it wouldn’t be 2023 without a healthy list of AI-driven features we plan to implement, from more personalized content delivery, to helpful tools for data analysis and story creation.
Also coming soon are Pro Accounts with a lot more flexibility for data collection and integration, and exploration and adventure brand partnerships.
In five years time I want Voiijer to be the gold-standard for exploration. I see the app being multi-platform and used by institutes and orgs. But I also see Voiijer spurring a renaissance in focus and stewardship of the natural world. I’m not sure if anyone reading this remembers Microsoft Encarta and Microsoft Dinosaurs, but those two CD-ROMs were a multimedia revelation to me as an early teen. And I want Voiijer to be that catalyst for others. Let’s create some more -ologists.
Do you have any available opportunities for investors and partnerships on the Voiijer project? Any more tips for our readers today?
Yes to both! And we have some exciting announcements coming soon so make sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook. To explore investment and partnership opportunities contact email@example.com.
Tip: install the app, open a Voiij and start using it to collect whatever you are curious about. Of course I got to use it long before everyone else did, and even in a crude early state it started to change the way I saw the world. I noticed edible plants everywhere on my walks in Oakland and started documenting them. I started a Voiij on architectural styles and one day I came home with a stack of books on Oakland history and Bay Area birds. Using Voiijer reawakened my curiosity and I want you to experience that too. And for those of you who are scientists and explorers, or subject-matter experts, I want to experience your journeys and discoveries!