Can virtual reality make people care about the environment?

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As Heather Millar writes for Yale’s Environment 360, one of the environmental movement’s biggest struggles is making people care about ecosystems that are often far away from them. Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford University, said that ““Virtual reality can give everyone, regardless of where they live, the kind of experience needed to generate the urgency required to prevent environmental calamity.” This year, Bailenson’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) released a VR documentary and game that explore ocean acidification. It is an otherwise difficult phenomenon to explain, as over time, an increase in water’s carbon dioxide level begin to have severe impacts on the health of coral and other marine life. Bailenson’s project, which showed at the Tribeca Film Festival, lets users dive and explore the reefs, both ones that are flourishing and others devastated by acidification.

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Screenshot from the ocean acidification VR by VHIL.

Through a collaboration with Google Expeditions, a VR educational program, the film will have an academic purpose, being used in schools. Currently, VHIL is working on a fish avatar project that will use movement data gathered from tagged fish in the Monterey Bay. Even more entertainment-focused projects like documentary filmmaker David Attenborough’s recent VR experience on the Great Barrier Reef can be educational as natural areas like these have been altered or destroyed because of climate change. As Millar writes, “many environmental issues are complex and difficult to explain fully” and “people who have a VR experience are more likely to change behavior in ways that benefit the planet.”


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