• Could Virtual Reality Save the Environment?

Environmental Laboratory

Could Virtual Reality Save the Environment?

Aug 09 2016

2016 is the year of Virtual Reality (VR). The Oculus Rift – the state of the art VR headgear – was released earlier this year, while Samsung have also released a more budget-friendly alternative. Predictably, the majority of the headlines and the funding have been swallowed up by VR gaming and movie opportunities, but there is another avenue which Google and Stanford University have been exploring: the environment.

Of course, it would be a stretch to say that VR can single-handedly save the environment. However, it can certainly help to raise awareness about the plight of certain aspects of planet Earth, by transplanting the everyman into situations and scenarios they literally couldn’t even dream of.

Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL)

A joint project between the VHIL at Stanford and Google has seen the release of an educational game which aims to inform players about the growing issue of ocean acidification. Many people have never heard about this problem; some have heard of it but don’t fully understand it; others simply aren’t moved to care enough about it to amend their daily habits – or don’t see the merit in doing so. VR can communicate the immediacy of the problem and reinforce the idea that the time to change is now with regards to the future our planet.

The VHIL game allows players to experience first-hand the damage being wrought underneath the surface of the waves in far-flung corners of the globe. In this manner, it can educate people whilst simultaneously entertaining them.

“The virtual reality platform allows someone who has never even been in the ocean to experience what ocean acidification can do to marine life,” explains Kirsty Kroeker, one of the consultants on the project and an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at UCAL. “We are visual creatures, and visual examples can be very striking.”

How VR can help

Ocean acidification is just one of the issues which VR can help to highlight. It can be very difficult for the common man to get their head around such far-reaching and expansive ideas as climate change and glacier erosion.

The reason for this is that these issues are either unfolding in remote parts of the world, inaccessible to most men, or will only manifest themselves years and decades down the line. Even once a person has grasped the enormity and immediacy of environmental issues, it can be hard to persuade that their own, individual actions can make a difference.

“One of the greatest challenges to staving off irrevocable climate change isn’t simply getting buy-in from sceptical politicians – it’s getting people to visualise how driving a gas-guzzling car or living in an energy inefficient home is contributing to a problem that may only manifest itself completely in future decades,” says Jeremy Bailenson, communication professor at Stanford.

Seeing is believing

Previous studies have shown that those who have experienced environmental issues first-hand through the medium of VR are more likely to adopt a greener attitude to their everyday routines. For example, tests have found that:

  • Subjects who cut down a redwood tree using VR (experiencing the sound and feel of the action) were more likely to conserve paper
  • Subjects who could see the amount of energy used in their daily shower as lumps of coal being eaten by a VR avatar of themselves were more likely to conserve water
  • Subjects who participated in the VHIL game cared more about the issue of ocean acidification than they did prior to playing it

Of course, VR is not only about alerting today’s generation to such environmental issues. If we can integrate this technology into schools and colleges all over the world, we can ingrain a conscientious and environmentally-responsible attitude into generations of humans to come – something that Google have been quick to grasp.

“Google Expeditions will be the means to reach the student for whom the textbook or the lecture isn’t working,” says James Leonard, one of the Google team working on the VR project. “It’s a totally different medium. It’s powerful and super-engaging. It will bring students closer to places they otherwise wouldn’t be able to visit.”


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