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Can Virtual Reality Inspire Action For Climate Change?

Bombarded by facts and images, and exhausted by ‘talking heads,’ the climate change discussion can often become overwhelming rather than inspiring. While we are all affected by climate change, understanding its impact is still a struggle for many. How can we increase climate literacy and inspire action?

Few have witnessed first-hand the melting ice caps or the destruction of the rainforests We have no direct connection to these affects phenomena and therefore cannot fully appreciate how they will influence our lives, let alone the future of our planet. 

With the help of today’s emerging technologies, we can immerse viewers in experiences that can bring them closer to the flora and fauna that need our help. Virtual Reality is a powerful medium that can generate the connection that has been lacking in other climate communication tactics.

What is Virtual Reality?

Oculus Rift S VR Headset
The Oculus Rift S VR Headset from Facebook Technologies, LLC.

Virtual Reality is typically referred to today as a computer-generated sensory experience that surrounds a user and replaces the real-world environment around them. Using a Head-Mounted Display (HMD), this goggle-like device immerses the viewer in a virtual space. The goal of this device is to produce a sense of presence and suspend the belief that the experience is mediated through technology.

Can Immersive Experiences Inspire Action?

Virtual Reality (“VR”) exposes the user to unique simulations that would otherwise be invisible to them. As the user is no longer defined by scale or time, the ability to explore the world as an atom or journey centuries into the future offers a new opportunity for understanding. Unlike watching a video or reading an article, VR incorporates “embodied cognition  where the body plays a significant role in cognitive processing–essentially you are “learning by doing.”   

Cutting Down a Virtual Redwood Can Lead You to Save Trees

According to Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, VR affects the motor cortex and our perceptions in a manner that is similar to real-life experiences.  The lab examines how real-world behaviour can be altered by immersing a user in a synthetic environment and in 2011, Bailenson and Sun Joo Ahn explored how cutting down a virtual redwood with a chainsaw could lead a person to increase their recycling practices. 

The experiment featured three subject groups:

  • The first group was asked to read literature discussing how the use of non-recycled paper leads to deforestation.
  • The second group of subjects were also asked to read, but their literature featured a detailed narrative of what happens when a chainsaw cuts through a tree. The content included vivid descriptions of everything, from birds chirping to branches snapping. 
  • The final group was not provided with literature but were instead exposed to a simulated forest using a Head-Mounted Display. A joystick controller provided haptic feedback (vibrations) as the subjects were asked to cut down the virtual tree with a chainsaw.  

Each group upon completion expressed that they had an increased understanding that their personal actions could improve the quality of the environment compared to how they felt before reading or being immersed in the virtual forest. While all groups reported an increased understanding, only one group translated their new view into actions–the subjects who cut down the virtual redwood.

The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience

In 2016 the lab presented, “The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience (SOAE) where participants witnessed the effects of climate change on marine life.  The virtual ecosystem featured the process by which the ocean becomes more acidic as it absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. At the beginning of the experiment, you are given two choices as to how you will experience the virtual ocean: as a diver or a piece of pink coral. As time goes by, different species disappear, the water begins to change, and the narrator invites you to explore what is left of the reef’s once colourful and exciting habitat. 

After the experience, participants were tested on their knowledge about ocean acidification. The results of these tests demonstrated that the participants had significantly enhanced their understanding of this subject. .They also demonstrated retention after more than three weeks following their immersion.

While participants were not provided critical next steps or a call-to-action, the study noted that those who explored more of the virtual ocean formed a deeper connection to the scientific content. 

SOAE is available for download: <>

Why Artists are Important to Climate Change

Image from We Live in Ocean and Air Exhibit
“We Live in an Ocean of Air” is a VR simulation where you walk freely through an ancient, digital forest

When consuming climate change media, you are faced with terms like “mitigation pathways” and “greenhouse gas emissions”.  Scientific facts, figures, and buzzwords that offer no emotional connection often fall flat with the consumer. On the other hand, immersive media has proven to be a compelling tool for encouraging change. However, to get the most out of this medium we must invite creators to build the narratives that deliver personal and visceral experiences. 

When artists, filmmakers, scientists, and developers come together, they are able to engage with audiences in creative and stimulating ways. Their innovative projects can parse these scientific themes and delight, educate, and inspire the viewer. 

UK-based collective Marshmallow Laser Feast  is a group of creators who have been developing immersive and multisensory experiences that seek to expand perception and explore our connection with the natural world. 

Their latest project “We Live in an Ocean of Air”, immerses visitors into a Virtual Reality simulation where you walk freely through an ancient, digital forest, featuring a towering Sequoia tree.  The exhibit, which was housed at London’s Saatchi Gallery, featured a dark room and two wall-sized screens that illuminated the space with projections of a peaceful and majestic forest. Using a combination of devices including untethered Virtual Reality headsets, heart rate monitors, breath sensors, and body tracking, visitors could explore the unseen connection between plant and human. Their breath–captured by the sensors–produced a virtual cluster of red CO2 dots which travelled into the tree. Those dots were then converted into blue dots, representing the oxygen we need to breathe. 

Further enhancing the experience, a scent dispersal system provided subtle forest notes, transporting the user’s senses directly into the Sequoia National Park.

“We Live in an Ocean of Air” took an important theme and translated it into an inspiring journey where visitors were not only able to learn about our symbiotic relationships with plants but were able to experience it first-hand.  

Mother of the Forest

Still image from Mother of the Forest VR Experience
“Glowing rings slowly move forward, representing the rings of a tree trunk and the stories they hold”

When OCAD U graduate student, Kylie Caraway was planning her master thesis she turned to her interests in environmental activism and her background in filmmaking for inspiration. Creating and directing an immersive experience and piece of art-science, “Mother of the Forest” promotes and encourages environmental activism and awareness. This co-production between the Canadian Film Centre (CFC)  and OCAD U blends scientific research and interactive media to create a VR experience that evokes a sense of kinship with our environment. Once the user has donned a VR headset they are placed in a sequoia ecosystem under stress. “As users move into the tree trunk, they are introduced to the notion that trees are storytellers. Glowing rings slowly move forward, representing the rings of a tree trunk and the stories they hold,” says Caraway. Exploring the woodlands through embodied perspectives of various species, “Mother of the Forest” asks the user to contemplate our role in this complex ecosystem. 

Showcased in Toronto at the Festival of International Virtual and Augmented Reality Stories (FIVARS) the piece quickly became a fan favourite proving that consumers are interested in exploring their relationship with our planet.


Performance Art and VR 

Known as one of the most powerful performance artists, Marina Abramović turned to Virtual Reality when creating her address to climate change.  “Risen” is Abramović’s call-to-action and designed to inspire viewers to immediately take up the fight against global warming. 

Still image from Marina Abramovic's Avatar
In “Risen”, the user is given a choice: save Marina and the planet or let both perish.

“Risen” brings you face-to-face with Abramović’s avatar who is trapped in a glass tank that is slowly filling up with water. As you approach the tank viewers find themselves surrounded by melting polar ice caps. The user is given a choice, save Marina and the planet by engaging in actions that will benefit the environment, or let both perish.

“In real life, when someone rescues another person or offers aid, there is a transfer of energy; both are affected by the experience. Will the same happen in Virtual Reality?,” questions the artist

In addition to her installation which was featured at the Phi Centre in Montreal, an app is available to experience Risen from the comfort of your own home. Instead of VR, the app uses Augmented Reality, which layers objects, images, and sounds over your existing world.  Similar to the exhibit, users witness the artist inside the glass tank slowly filling with water. The app–which is set up like a to-do list–is used to pledge support to the environment by reducing waste, conserving energy, recycling, or educating others. Each of these actions will positively improve the environment and will save Marina. 

The Risen app is available on iOS and Android.

As the content creators and scientists come together to raise awareness about climate change, we must present opportunities for these immersive projects, installations, and stories to make it to the public. These incredible works have the ability to inspire action and generate change. By translating complex science into powerful immersive experiences we can strike the right balance of emotions and understanding and work toward building a better tomorrow. 

Comments (1)

Thanks for covering this important topic. Whatever VR can do for us, let’s hope it helps in the arena above all.

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