Environmental issues are easier to brush aside when people are detached from what the damage really looks like. However, the immersive capacity of VR might be the answer to help environmentalists promote conservation.
The Role of VR in Environmental Issues
Approximately 8 million tons of plastic end up as debris in the world’s oceans each year. That’s equivalent to an area about 34 times the size of Manhattan ankle-deep in plastic waste.
On land, a staggering 44.7 million metric tons of electronic waste—scrapped electronic and electric devices—are left unrecycled. If you can’t really picture it, try this – all that waste could go as high as about 4,500 Eiffel Towers!
But even with all these figures, it’s easy to brush aside the urgency of environmental matters. Especially when we don’t really experience the impacts firsthand.
This is why environmentalists are trying to find ways to make the situation more real for people. And virtual reality can do just that.
VR to Save the Environment: Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL)
One of the pioneer projects in this field is the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL). Part of Stanford University’s Communications Department, the lab explores virtual reality’s impact on behavior.
Professor Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director, focuses on using VR as a transformative tool for education, health, empathy, as well as environmental conservation.
For him, virtual reality is relevant in environmental initiatives, as it can be the key to eliciting the sense of urgency required to prevent foreseen environmental calamities.
The VHIL has conducted several studies that show how virtual reality is uniquely effective when it comes to promoting sustainable behavior.
For instance, one study allowed participants to inhabit the bodies of animals. The study found how VR’s heightened sensory experience encouraged a sense of urgency to be more mindful about the environmental risks that these animals face.
Simply put, virtual reality could activate our empathy and compel a change in thinking and behavior.
Promote Environmental Conservation Through VR Technology
In 2016, the VHIL released a short documentary and an interactive VR game about the issue of ocean acidification, or how excess CO2 in the atmosphere is turning the ocean waters more acidic, affecting marine life.
The Stanford team collaborated with marine scientists to design a virtual replica of a reef around the Ischia island off the Italian Coast. With a VR headset, users can become a pink coral sitting amidst the sea urchins and other colorful creatures. But after 13 minutes, a shocking new version of the reef will come into view: every creature is dead, replaced by slimy algae. Even the user disintegrates from the high acidity of the sea.
The virtual reality simulation was developed to generate an active response in those who experience it.
Now, this is a big issue for environmentalists, as one obstacle in getting their point across is the detachment of the average individual from what is happening on our planet. Even when we are well aware of how our own actions impact the climate, pollution levels, and other pressing issues, we still keep on with our usual habits.
But the immersive capability of virtual reality might just inspire that jump from awareness to active change.
Google Expeditions has added the VHIL documentary to its program. This means that the content can be made available to students around the world. The experience is also free to download on Viveport, Steam and Oculus.
VR Beyond Entertainment
Right now, the VHIL is one of a few initiatives that look into VR as a tool for societal change. The good thing is that VR is becoming more and more mainstream.
Hopefully, more of these conservation-focused advocacies will become accessible to the general public. After all, such projects prove that VR can move beyond entertainment. It can help change our habits for the betterment of the environment.