Recommended: Meet the creative studio using tech for social good
“Right now, tech is used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. The tools themselves are not the problem, it’s how people make and use them,” says Ricebox founder Maria Than, 25. Composed of a team of four, Maria alongside Anna Tsuda, Bristy Azmi, and Safiya Ahmed, the studio relies on creative tech to drive change, whether the topic is period poverty or climate emergency. What binds each project is that they raise questions about how to encourage activism through immersive design and what it means to embrace the boundless potential of digital storytelling.
“We see each project as a grain of rice – a creative seed we plant in people’s minds to make them think differently about something,” Maria says, referring to TechBox, a series of Augmented Reality (AR) workshops the team delivers to universities across the UK. Unlike Virtual Reality (VR), which only exists artificially, AR fuses physical and online life. Think QR codes, Instagram filters and Pokémon Go. So, when Ricebox returned to their former campus to teach AR to BA Graphic Design at Camberwell UAL, they encouraged students to embrace such technology through the lens of activism.
Inspired by the backlash following Kacey Musgraves’ sexualisation of the Vietnamese costume áo dài, one group built a filter challenging cultural appropriation. Upon scanning a photo of the singer, the user is presented with a 3-D model wearing a traditional áo dài, complete with instructions on how and when to wear it. In the same session, another group aimed to break down language barriers by creating a translation tool that can scan objects and produce 3-D animations, instead of spoken and written words. Other themes that came up included fast fashion, misinformation and accessibility.
Maria explains that because TechBox is centred around social issues, it makes sense to prioritise marginalised groups such as first-generation immigrants and POCs. “The whole point is to get their stories out there because they are not at the forefront of mainstream discussions.” She adds that Ricebox is led by a group of Asian women who understand the importance of lowering the barriers of entry to tech education. “Tech equals power. Being able to understand and use tech is a form of privilege because not everyone has access to digital tools in the first place.”
Aside from the educational output, Ricebox takes on internal design projects promoting a greater mission. The most recent being interactive website design for the UK’s first national helpline supporting East and South East Asian victims of hate crimes and racism. Earlier this year, they also developed Instagram filters for period activist Annika Waheed. Each filter represents a different aspect of PMDD to help Annika engage her followers in discussions about the premenstrual syndrome.
“I want us to go back to this idea that technology is supposed to make our lives better,” Maria says, admitting that it is difficult to escape the sense of gloom in the face of rampant profit-chasing and exploitation within the tech industry. “Some circles are hyper-focused on making a quick buck with NFTs and the metaverse. I wish that would change because it boils down these amazing scenes to limited applications of creativity.”
In contrast, Ricebox is determined to showcase the immense potential of tech and what can be achieved when the greater good is the priority. A world beyond Elon Musk’s Twitter mess and “crypto bros” pushing subpar NFTs. “AI, AR and VR are not just funky words, they are real tools for you to wield. It’s not so obscure, it’s for everyone – and it’s becoming more democratic by the second.”