Respecting and Protecting Cultural Values in an Indigenous Virtual Reality Project

By on September 27th, 2023 in Articles, Case Studies, Commentary, Ethics, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, Social Implications of Technology

Steven Mills and Holger Regenbrecht


Co-design and development of technology with indigenous communities requires respect and close partnership. Here, we reflect on our experiences working with a Māori (indigenous New Zealand) community as Pākehā (non-Māori).1 In particular, we consider the importance of protection as an underlying principle. We believe that our experiences can inform other researchers and practitioners in respecting and protecting cultural values in similar projects.

Our reflections are based on our work on the Ātea project, a collaboration between several universities; Māori researchers; and the Awarua community in Bluff, a small town on the south coast of the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. This project involves the development of technologies in close co-design and iterative evaluation with the Māori community. As Pākehā textasciimacron researchers, we find ourselves moving between technological research in a traditional Western university and te ao Māori (the Māori world). Navigating this interface requires the protection of the interests of the community, the culture and traditions of our Māori partners, and for us, as researchers, learning to work in this space.

The Ātea project aims to preserve and share knowledge, language, and culture in the digital realm.

Much of Māori culture and identity is connected to place, with each hapu textasciimacron (kinship group) having whakapapa (ancestry) to a specific area or place. This is reflected in the concepts of tu textasciimacron rangawaewae (place of belonging), hau kāinga (true home, local people of a marae), ahi kā(continuous occupation), and mana whenua (territorial authority) [3], [5], [10]. These terms are layered with meaning. Tu textasciimacron rangawaewae can be read as “a place where one has the right to stand” and refers to identity connected with being from a specific place, while ahi kā can be literately interpreted as “burning fires” with periods of absence leading to the fires weakening (ahi tere or ahi tahutahu) or becoming cold. The importance of place for Māori is reflected in our work as we aim to (re)connect people back to place and space through virtual reality technology. Our work involves the reconstruction of specific places of cultural significance, so protecting these places becomes entwined with protecting the cultural practices that are applied to these spaces.

Ātea presence

The Ātea project aims to preserve and share knowledge, language, and culture in the digital realm and had several components to it. These include digital tools to support te reo Māori (the Māori language), storage and governance of data respecting cultural values, and tools for virtual tele-co-presence. The name Ātea refers to the open area outside the wharenui (meeting house) on the marae (cultural center). The word Ātea can also mean a space, a wide expanse, or something clear and free from obstruction. Figure 1 shows the Ātea project team gathered on the Ātea at Te Rau Aroha marae.

Tu textasciimacron rangawaewae can be read as “a place where one has the right to stand” and refers to identity connected with being from a specific place.

Our main contribution to the Ātea project was in the tele-co-presence space [6], [7], [9] and the development of Ātea Presence. The goal was to provide a meaningful tele- and co-presence interface to connect local and dispersed people with each other, with their tu textasciimacron rangawaewae, and with their culture. We were part of a much larger team creating a virtual model of the marae; providing the ability to record, transmit, and play-back people in 3-D via voxel videos [8]; and investigating the effectiveness of these technologies in establishing a sense of tele-co-presence—the sense of being there, together, in the marae despite being geographically far away from each other and that place. An example of the Ātea Presence system in use is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. - Researchers Noel Park (left) and Stuart Duncan (right), each at different locations, interacting with a recording of kaumatua (elder) Bubba Thompson (center) in the Ātea Presence system.

Figure 2.Researchers Noel Park (left) and Stuart Duncan (right), each at different locations, interacting with a recording of kaumatua (elder) Bubba Thompson (center) in the Ātea Presence system.


While our formal role in the project was to oversee the technical development of Ātea Presence, partnership and protection were two of our key concerns. From the outset of the project, we knew that success depended on establishing a genuine partnership with the community of Te Ru textasciimacron naka o Awarua. To build that partnership, we had to establish trust, and, in particular, trust that would provide active protection for the interests of the ru textasciimacron nganga/ru textasciimacron naka (tribal council) the taonga and mātauranga (knowledge) we would be used within our system; and the wider kaupapa (purpose) of the Ātea project. Ensuring active protection of our indigenous partners’ culture and values at the outset of the project was not just important, it was an absolute necessity.

Protection principle

In New Zealand, Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) is one of the foundations of the relationship between the indigenous Māori people and the (initially) European settlers. While there is ongoing analysis, and different principles emerge in different contexts, one of the common themes that emerge is the concept of protection. This protection extends to tino rangatiratanga (self-determination or sovereignty), tikanga (values, protocols, and ways of being), and taonga (tangible and intangible treasures or items of cultural significance). As a result, the principle of protection is of key importance in all interactions with Māori.

The goal was to provide a meaningful tele- and co-presence interface to connect local and dispersed people with each other.

In education, there is often a reference to the “Three Ps” of Te Tiriti—partnership, participation, and protection [2], these principles having been established by the Royal Commission on Social Policy in 1988. Similar principles have been used in the context of health [4]. Partnership and “active protection” are also key principles when applying Te Tiriti to the redress of historic claims by iwi against the Crown [12]. Te Tiriti continues to be interpreted in response to new technologies [11], and while the expression of the principles changes and adapts, partnership and protection remain constant. Furthermore, there is often a reference to active protection, meaning that partners (originally The Crown) must take positive action to defend Māori interests, rather than merely avoiding negative actions.

For information technology projects, “protection” might be easily viewed as a security issue. While data protection and security are a part of the picture, a much broader perspective is required. This broader view must consider both what is to be protected, and how active steps can be taken to achieve that. Projects that are codesigned and developed with and for Māori communities capture and reflect a wealth of mātauranga (knowledge), tikanga, and taonga. Protecting these (often intangible) values requires careful thought and ongoing consideration.

Protection in Ātea

At the outset of the Ātea project, our research team set in place a simple, yet effective rule to embody the principle of protection: The values and desires of the runānga would always take precedence over the aims and opinions of the academic researchers.

A concrete example of this in action is the capture and virtual reconstruction of the wharenui in the Ātea Presence system. At the start of the project, the ru textasciimacron nanga had concerns about taking photographs of the wharenui (meeting house) as it is a taonga and a tapu textasciimacron (special or sacred) place. The ru textasciimacron nanga had, before us starting the research project, established protocols and restrictions on capturing video and taking photographs of the ancestors within the wharenui. This position was accepted by us as Pākehā textasciimacron researchers, and we proceeded to develop and discuss a number of scenarios with the leadership of the ru textasciimacron nanga which included undertaking initial captures of stories in the wharekai (dining room) to develop the system. Over time, as we built our relationship with the ru textasciimacron nanga, their position changed. In the end, we were able to reconstruct the wharenui, but only once our Māori partners had decided that it was appropriate for them and that they fully understood how the system was going to be used.

Over the course of the project, the principle of protection arose in many situations. Many of these related to tikanga (customs and protocols), and so as Pākehā textasciimacron working in te ao Māori (the Māori world), we had to educate ourselves in this regard. Part of this was protection for ourselves—ignorance of tikanga and a lack of respect for our Māori partners could easily damage or destroy our partnership. More importantly, however, we needed to ensure that we were respectful of, and actively protected, the mana (status, authority, respect) of the ru textasciimacron nanga and our partners.

Over the course of the project, the principle of protection arose in many situations.

Other issues of protection arose from the technology we were developing. As an example, there are many aspects of tikanga surrounding the wharenui. Before entering the marae for the first time, it is necessary to participate in a po textasciimacron whiri (welcoming ceremony); shoes are not worn inside the wharenui; and many more. The Ātea Presence system raises many questions about how this tikanga transfers to the virtual space. Do you need a (real or virtual) po textasciimacron whiri to use Ātea Presence? Should you wear shoes in the virtual marae? These are questions we are exploring in partnership with our Māori collaborators, but applying the principle of protection to this tikanga helps to frame the questions and give them due consideration.

These examples reflect back to the consideration of place as an important aspect of cultural protection. The marae and, specifically, the wharenui are places that embody the ru textasciimacron nanga’s tu textasciimacron rangawaewae. Connecting to one’s marae is an important part of maintaining cultural connections and ensuring ahi ka textasciimacron, and the marae is the focal point of the community. The layers of culture, ancestry, and place mean that the Ātea Presence system carries layers of significance that require protection.

Protection and partnership are clearly reflected in the core values of Māori society, such as kaitiakitanga (guardianship and protection), whanaungatanga (close relationship or kinship), manaakitanga (respect, generosity, and care), and kotahitanga (unity and solidarity) [1], [5]. The early stages of the Ātea project focused on whakawhanaungatanga (relationship building), including the team staying on the marae for several days, to lay the foundations for an ongoing partnership. This process also provided us (as Pākehā textasciimacron) with the opportunity to put what we had previously learned about tikanga into practice and experience Māori culture first-hand.

As partners in the Ātea project, we are now responsible for providing active protection for the ru textasciimacron nanga’s interests. The data we gathered, the systems we produced, and the knowledge we gained are all inextricably linked to the mātauranga, tikanga, and taonga of the community. This gives us an obligation to ensure that they are only used and presented in ways that are acceptable to the community. In addition to data security measures, ongoing consultation about the use of the materials we have gathered and produced has been a key aspect of this protection. The Ātea Presence experience is not publicly available—it belongs to the community, and we seek permission before showing it in any new context, all publications (including this one) are provided in advance for comment and approval, and so on.

Throughout this consultation, we keep the original rule for protection in mind—if the ru textasciimacron nanga has any concerns, then we do not proceed until and unless they are resolved. When this happens, we do not view it as a problem or a failure. Rather, it is an indication that we need to understand more about tikanga surrounding this project, and the context in which we are privileged to conduct this research. By taking these opportunities we are able to build a stronger partnership, educate ourselves to become better allies, and ensure that the cultural values of the community are protected.

In this ongoing project, over the years, we together have learned what it means to partner with each other, participate in each other’s activities to gain a better understanding of each other’s views and values, and be very respectful to protect each other’s taonga, culture, and private and public spheres. What we have also learned is that it takes time and patience (a fourth “P” in addition to partnership, participation, and protection) to give this process space and time to organically develop in a trustful way. Ultimately, the success of the Ātea project relied on our Māori partners sharing their culture with us. As a result, we were required to demonstrate how we guarded and protected the knowledge entrusted to us. Without a relationship based on partnership and protection, we could not have established the required trust, and the project would have not been possible.


This work was supported by the National Science Challenges, Science for Technological Innovation, Ātea project. Our role was part of a much larger effort, and we thank Prof. He textasciimacron mi Whaanga for his leadership of the Ātea project and comments on a draft of this article. We extend our thanks to all of our colleagues for their support and collaboration. Above all, we give our heartfelt thanks to the people of Te Rau Aroha marae for their whanaungatanga and manaakitanga.


Author Information

Steven Mills is an associate professor with the Department of Computer Science, University of Otago, Dunedin 9016, New Zealand. His research interests lie in computer vision, particularly the reconstruction of 3-D shapes from images, and in cultural and heritage applications of this technology. Mills has a BSc (Hons.) in computer science and a PhD from the University of Otago. Email:

Holger Regenbrecht is a professor at the University of Otago, Dunedin 9016, New Zealand. His general field of research is human–computer interaction with an emphasis on visual computing, in particular, virtual and augmented reality. His work spans theory, concepts, techniques, technologies, and applications in a wide range of domains. A second emphasis of his research is computer-mediated communication, such as telepresence systems, where he studies technological and psychological aspects and delivers prototype solutions. Regenbrecht has a PhD from Bauhaus University Weimar, Weimar, Germany.


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