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.