VR Saves The Earth

Cleaning up “Oceans of Plastic” by Creating Empathy with Immersion

                                A Layman Albatross chick looks out from a plastic strewn landscape.                                                                (Image attribution: Kris Krüg)

                               A Layman Albatross chick looks out from a plastic strewn landscape.

                                                              (Image attribution: Kris Krüg)

Can Virtual Reality (VR) save the Earth?  More specifically, can VR generate empathy in participants that changes their behavior in relation to the serious environmental issues that face the Earth?  Will a VR experience that immerses audiences in the tragedy of plastic pollution from the perspective of bird and marine life, change the way people use plastic?

As far-fetched as this seems, it will.  

How do I dare make such an ambitious and (some would say) outrageous claim?  Here’s how.

Virtual Reality has been shown to generate real empathy, changing the behaviors of people who have experienced immersive situations focused on critical issues.  

Don’t believe it?  Check out these examples.

Cutting down a virtual Redwood Tree leads to increased paper recycling.

A researcher, Sun Joo Ahn, working at Stanford University’s 's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, compared the effects of a VR simulation of cutting down a towering sequoia to reading an account of cutting down the tree with two test groups.  The first group read a written account, rich with detail, describing the chirping birds in the forest, the sound and vibration of the saw and the snapping of branches that comes with the crash of the mighty redwood.  The second group participated in VR simulation, cutting down a virtual sequoia with a virtual chainsaw in a forest.

Both test groups said they had a stronger belief that their personal actions could improve the quality of the environment, compared to how they felt before they either read about tree cutting or chopped down the redwood in the virtual reality forest.

But when tested, only the VR tree choppers cut their paper use. Before letting them leave the lab, Ahn had the subjects in both groups sit at a desk and fill out some forms. She placed a stack of paper napkins and a glass of water on the desk and pretended to accidentally knock the glass over. The subjects reflexively grabbed napkins to clean the spill, and Ahn later counted how many were used.

Those who only read about logging used an average of 20 percent more napkins than the virtual lumberjacks.

"This study isn't all about trees," said Ahn, "It's about how we are able to use an immersive virtual environment to create a change in behavior in the physical world," she said. "We showed that just three minutes of an embodied experience could produce a behavioral result."

A Virtual Reality Film Generates Empathy for Syrian Refugees

Film producer Chris Milk worked with the United Nations to create a virtual reality film, Clouds Over Sidra, that puts participants inside a Syrian refugee camp and follows a day in the life of 12-year-old Sidra, a girl who has lived there for 18 months with thousands of other refugees. Wearing an Oculus Rift, you feel as if you’re sitting right next to Sidra: move your head and see children walking, turning their heads to look back at you.

“[Virtual reality] connects humans to other humans in a profound way I’ve never before seen in any other form of media, and it can change people’s perception of each other,” Milk says in his TED Talk. “That is why I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world.”

In a review of this experience for CNET, Scott Stein had this to say:

“I cried a lot during the 8 minutes of Clouds Over Sidra … At first, I was quietly immersed. Then, I felt a tear well up, blurring the view. Then I was choking back sounds as my wife was next to me reading a book, not realizing I was feeling so overwhelmed. I was a person in a messy apartment in New Jersey, with a virtual reality headset on my weeping face, far removed from Jordan, or Syria.”

He adds “The power of virtual reality filmmaking, if it's anything like what Clouds Over Sidra demonstrates, is utterly overwhelming.”

Changing hearts and minds with “Oceans of Plastic - A Bird’s Perspective”

This Virtual Reality experience focuses on the problem of plastic pollution and its effect on marine, bird and human life. The participant views plastic pollution, its origins and affected regions, from the perspective of a bird, with voice-over narration that explains the problem, its impact and what they can do to help solve the problem.

Some background.  5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing a total of 268,940 tons are currently floating in the world’s oceans.  In the most polluted places in the ocean, the mass of plastic exceeds the amount of plankton six times over. This affects bird and marine life.  

For example, of the 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses that inhabit Midway Atoll, nearly all are found to have plastic in their digestive system. Approximately one-third of the chicks die.  Albatrosses are not the only species to suffer from the plastic pollution; sea turtles and monk seals also consume the debris.  But it’s not just birds, turtles and seals.  

The floating plastic debris can absorb organic pollutants from seawater, including PCBs, DDT, and PAHs. These toxin-containing plastic pieces are also eaten by jellyfish, which are then eaten by larger fish. In a recent study, around one in four fish at markets in California and Indonesia had plastic particles in their guts.

In the United States, only 9 percent of post-consumer plastic (2.8 million tons) was recycled in 2012.  But even that plastic, recycled into doormats, textiles, plastic lumber,will still end up in a landfill. Which means it won’t reduce the need for more virgin petroleum plastic product.  Recycling is not the solution.  We need to stop using or at the very least minimize our use of plastic.  

The solutions are not all that complex.  Using our own beverage containers, reusable straws and utensils are a good start.  Buying items in bulk with our own containers will also help.  We don’t just want to inform people about the problem of plastic pollution, we want to give them the tools to help solve it.

I believe that this VR experience will make a difference.  We’re partnering with museums, VR hardware companies, and advocacy groups to make “Oceans of Plastic” available to people around the world.  

Virtual Reality can generate real empathy that sparks change.  This experience is just the start.



Ginger Goss Mukherjee ginger@5gyres.org
William Volk business@forwardreality.com

Carlsbad, CA (May 31, 2017) - 5 Gyres is partnering with Forward Reality, as an advisor on a Virtual Reality (VR)  project to educate people about the serious issue of plastic pollution in our oceans.

The “Pacific Garbage Patch - A Seagull’s Perspective” is a VR experience that uses the concept of the Pacific Garbage Patch—a mythical area in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that popularized the problem of plastic pollution—to explore its effect on marine and bird life. The compelling interactive experience will drive home the reality that this type of pollution isn’t limited to one area, but permeates ocean waters like a plastic smog. 

A narrator in the form of the Seagull will draw attention to this critical issue, explaining its origins and guiding the exploration of multiple locations such as the North Pacific Gyre and Midway Island, as well as plastic factories and fish markets. Players will understand the origin of this plastic garbage, the impact it has on the world around us and the steps they can take to help solve the problem.

“We’re pleased to have the participation of the 5 Gyres Institute on this important project, their expertise on this issue is invaluable,” said Sherri Cuono, CEO of Forward Reality. “Forward Reality will be launching this experience in museums worldwide as well as making it available to the public on multiple VR platforms.”

“Solving the problem of plastic pollution demands innovation," said Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, 5 Gyres Executive Director.  “We’re honored to share our experience through this exciting new platform to drive awareness and action on this critical issue."

The “Pacific Garbage Patch - A Seagull’s Perspective” will be released later this year.


The nonprofit 5 Gyres Institute has been fighting plastic ocean pollution since 2009. Beginning in 2010, 5 Gyres began a series of scientific firsts by researching plastic in all five subtropical gyres, as well as the Great Lakes and Antarctica. In 2014, the organization convened eight scientists around the world to publish the first global estimate of plastic pollution in our ocean: 5.25 trillion particles weighing in at 270,000 tons of “plastic smog” worldwide. 5 Gyres’ paper on plastic microbead pollution in the Great Lakes inspired a two-year collaborative campaign that culminated in a federal ban on microbeads, which President Obama signed into law in 2015. In August, 5 Gyres embarked on its 17th expedition—this time to research microplastics and nanoplastics in the Arctic Circle. More information is at http://www.5gyres.org  


Forward Reality is creating amazing interactive VR experiences that educate, entertain and inspire. Our focus is on VR with a Purpose.  Founded by industry pioneers, we are an independent studio dedicated to using VR technology to change the world for the better.  Through our combined decades of research and achievements in video game production and 360 video, Forward Reality is creating the next generation of media-rich VR entertainment.  More information about Forward Reality can be found at http://forwardreality.com

Why VR Matters for Education

The one constant in computer based learning, over the last three decades, is the lack success in changing the education experience for the better.  That's not to say that there hasn't been excellent educational software, there has.  It's just that it hasn't improved retention or more importantly, enthusiasm for learning.

One possible reason?  Computer based instruction doesn't address a sufficent number of Learning Styles.

What are Learning Styles?

People have different learning styles and techniques.  Learning styles group the common ways that people learn.  Most people have a mix of learning styles.  Some may find that they have a dominant style of learning, with far less use of the other styles.  Others may find that they use different styles in different circumstances.  There is no right way to learn. 

The Seven Learning Styles:



  • Visual (spatial): Prefers using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
  • Aural (auditory-musical): Prefers using sound and music.
  • Verbal (linguistic): Prefers using words, both in speech and writing.
  • Physical (kinesthetic): Prefers using their body, hands and sense of touch.
  • Logical (mathematical): Prefers using logic, reasoning and systems.
  • Social (interpersonal): Prefers to learn in groups or with other people.
  • Solitary (intra-personal): Prefers to work alone and use self-study.

Traditional based computer instruction certainly addresses Visual and Logical learning styles, and sometimes Aural.  What VR brings to the table is the Physical (kinesthetic) learning style.  Users can 'grab' objects, perform operations with them.  It can also be argued that VR provides a better Visual Learning Style experience due to its immersive nature.

We're applying VR technology to a variety of educational experiences.  Our first effort is "Edison's Lab," a VR experience we're building that educates and entertains.  "Edison's Lab" combines science and history with virtual reality technology, to make Edison and his inventions relevant to students today.  This experience exercises multiple learning skills.  

"Edison's Lab" allows users to interact with Edison’s inventions in a virtual environment.  By exploiting VR, the experience supports multiple learning styles and improves retention:

  • Visual: Users can see 3D representations of inventions and objects of Edison’s era.
  • Aural/Verbal: Users hear Edison’s own words, as he describes the creation of these inventions.  They even hear Edison’s phonograph in operation.
  • Physical (Kinesthetic): Users assemble inventions and pick up objects in the virtual environment.
  • Logical: Puzzles allow users to understand the logic of simple electrical wiring.  

"Edison's Lab" takes place in several locations.  This includes the workshops at Menlo Park and Ft. Myers as well as his movie studio, machine shop and office.

Each location is a realistic 3D environment that the player will be able to navigate in and manipulate objects.  Users collect objects, learn about their history, assemble inventions and solve logical puzzles.  
This is our first "VR with a Purpose" title, but it won't be our last.  

Contact us at Forward Reality if you're interested in learning more about our work to create great educational content.

- William Volk, Chief Futurist, Forward Reality.

VR Can Save Our Oceans

Plastic waste in our oceans is having a devastating effect on marine life.  We’re going to do something about that.

Approximately 10–20 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year from runoff and ocean dumping. A recent study conservatively estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing a total of 268,940 tons are currently floating in the world’s oceans.  

Some of these long-lasting plastics end up in the stomachs of marine animals.  Besides the particles' danger to wildlife, on the microscopic level the floating debris can absorb organic pollutants from seawater, including PCBs, DDT, and PAHs. In the most polluted places in the ocean, the mass of plastic exceeds the amount of plankton six times over. As these chemicals are ingested by animals in the ocean, they affect the health of people who depend on fish as their main source of protein.  In a recent study, around one in four fish at markets in California and Indonesia had plastic particles in their guts.  

The “Oceans of Plastic - A Bird’s Perspective” is a VR experience we're building, that focuses on plastic pollution in our oceans and its effect on marine, bird and human life.  The player views plastic pollution, its origins and affected regions, from the perspective of a Albatross, with voice over narration that explains the content and issues. By viewing multiple locations (Oceans, Beaches, etc) players can understand the origin of this plastic garbage, the impact it has on the world around us, and the steps they can personally take to help end this crisis.

We're working with partner companies to get this distributed to museums around the world.  

Contact us at Forward Reality if you're interested in being a part of this.

- William Volk, Chief Futurist, Forward Reality.