Ozone degradation. Melting ice caps. Biodiversity loss. You see these headlines every day. Maybe you peruse the story and feel upset, or maybe you put your head down and get back to your workday. It’s not that you don’t care — likely, it’s because these stories feel so removed from your own life that it’s hard to truly empathize.
What does the virtual reality (VR) have to do with empathizing, you might ask? Well, the impact of VR can be surprisingly profound: You may not really get the seriousness of a situation until you’ve had a personal encounter with it. And if you live in downtown Kalamazoo, you can’t really feel the impact of that tsunami on the Fukishima shoreline.
In order to raise money for Aleppo, Syria, Amnesty International used VR for a transformative campaign in 2015. According to Sustainability X, the campaign transported participants to the city’s war-ravaged streets. The sensory stimulation — being able to hear, see and feel the situation in Syria — led to a strong emotional response in participants, as well as a 16 percent increase in donations.
VR is powerful. It can help paraplegics gain some sense in their legs and transport World War II veterans to their Washington D.C. war memorials, but can it also help us feel empathy for the environment?
Potentially. Sustainability X also notes an experiment done by Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), which creates VR simulations that lead to compassion in users. Participants were shown a simulation of the degradation of Italy’s coral reefs caused by fossil fuel overuse. Interestingly, preliminary results of the study found those who engaged with the VR showed more concern for environmental awareness after the experience than those who did not use VR. And in another VHIL study, one subject group read about what cutting down a tree was like, while another group “actually” cut down a tree through VR. In the end, those who did the VR simulation were more likely to reduce their paper consumption.
“Virtual reality can give everyone, regardless of where they live, the kind of experience needed to generate the urgency required to prevent environmental calamity,” Stanford professor and VHIL founder Jeremy Bailenson told Yale Environment 360.
Many in the VR space — like Bailenson and even Jaron Lanier, who invented the term “virtual reality” — don’t see the technology’s main point as movies or gaming. Bailenson told Slate that he thinks VR’s power is its ability to trick a person’s brain into confusing what’s real and what’s not, allowing viewers to change the way they view themselves and the world.
Luckily, it isn’t just Stanford working on VR for sustainability; others are harnessing the technology for environmental good. Filmmaker Michael Owen is currently working on a project to help Russia’s Lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an endangered freshwater resource. While he doesn’t believe VR is better at conveying abstract concepts than traditional 2-D film, it does have the advantage of immersing the viewer in the place presented.
“The viewer can make a visceral connection to the place and people they are watching,” Owen told me in an interview. “This feeling is called presence, and the result can be a strong sense of empathy. This makes VR a powerful tool for engaging audiences and shaping their opinions.”
VR isn’t without its challenges, though. Owen notes that because the creator can’t control where the viewer will actually be looking, presenting graphic information can be challenging. And since it’s a relatively new medium, it can be tough to balance factual content with immersive storytelling, especially as providing facts and figures can be hard in VR.
“VR is a great medium,” Owen told me, “but it will probably take several years for the technology to improve and for costs to come down to the point that it’s widely embraced by the general public. Only then will there be broad adoption of 360-degree filmmaking for all subjects including environmental subjects.”
For now, it’s exciting to see the creative ways filmmakers are using the impact of VR to help save the planet.