Virtual Reality, A Tool for Conservation?

(via Yale Environment 360)

Could Virtual Reality (VR) — immersive digital experiences that mimic reality — save the environment?

Well, that may be a bit of a stretch. But researchers say that it could perhaps promote better understanding of nature and give people empathetic insight into environmental challenges.

“Virtual reality can give everyone, regardless of where they live, the kind of experience needed to generate the urgency required to prevent environmental calamity,” says Jeremy Bailenson, professor of communication at Stanford University.

Bailenson’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) this year released a short VR documentary and an interactive VR game that seek to explain the issue of ocean acidification, the process by which excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in the ocean, making it more acidic and less healthy for ocean life.

As Bailenson notes, “One of the greatest challenges to staving off irrevocable climate change isn’t simply getting buy-in from skeptical politicians – it’s getting people to visualize 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.”

Link to a video – Stanford Virtual Reality, Ocean Acidification

Many environmental issues are complex and difficult to explain fully. Phenomena like climate change, ocean acidification, extinction, and glacier erosion are especially challenging to illustrate, either because they’re happening in slow motion or because they’re evolving in remote places that few people see, or both.

Virtual reality solves many of these problems, Bailenson says. With the proper software, video feed and VR headset, just about anyone might be able to experience environmental change in the Amazon, the Arctic, or even under the ocean.

When I take my ocean acidification dive, I jump off from Palo Alto, California.

One minute, I’m in a high tech virtual reality (VR) lab at Stanford University, standing on a “haptic” floor of aeronautic aluminum that can move and vibrate to simulate the feeling of movement, encircled by speakers that can immerse me in sound, and by cameras that can track my every move, where I look, how and where I turn my body.

The next minute, I put on the VR headset and suddenly I’m in Italy, near the northern end of the Gulf of Naples, on a jetty that extends from a volcanic island called Ischia. To say it looks and feels idyllic would be an understatement: The sun glints off the waves and bright primary color boats bob in the harbor. On the island, pastel stucco houses stair-step up toward a gray, crenelated castle. Above water, everything seems lovely.

Then I’m underwater. The sea around Ischia, it turns out, provides a perfect place to show people the contrast between a healthy ocean and an acidified one: In one part of the harbor, colorful schools of fish rush past me. Sea grasses undulate. Eel squiggle by brilliant coral reefs. Along the bottom potter various species of sea snail.

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