How Virtual Reality Can Help Us Feel the Pain of Climate Change

It’s hard to comprehend the concept of oceans getting more acidic. Unless you become the coral.

Ocean virtual reality
Stanford's Ocean Acidification Experience uses virtual reality to help people understand in a uniquely personal way the long-term effects of climate change. Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab

It’s not easy to get people exercised about ocean acidification. Yes, it’s a nasty consequence of climate change, a potential death sentence for oysters, clams, sea urchins and, most of all, coral. But it’s slow-motion extermination, out of sight of most humans, and that makes it difficult for us to feel much of a connection—let alone any responsibility—for the calamitous process.

Researchers at Stanford, however, believe a good way to help people become more aware of their impact on nature may lie in a particularly unnatural experience—virtual reality (VR) immersion.

“Some experiences may not be well-suited for VR,” says Jeremy Bailenson, professor of communications at Stanford and director of its Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL). “But if we leverage what is special about the medium—the fact that you can move your body and interact with a scene—then we can create intense experiences that actually change you.”

Bailenson has been researching the value of VR as a teaching tool since the late 1990s, and he’s found that it can have considerably more impact than simply knowing that damage is being done to the natural world. Once someone can see, hear and even feel what’s happening from the perspective of plants and animals, he or she tends to understand their fate in a more visceral way and is more motivated to take action, he says.

That notion was borne out in a recent study by Bailenson and a team of scientists from Stanford, the University of Georgia and the University of Connecticut. They determined that immersing people in a VR experience was clearly more effective in getting through to them than simply showing them a video on the same subject.

The key was to have people become the coral.

In two worlds

The Stanford team worked with marine biologists to build a virtual replica of a reef around the Italian island of Ischia. Underground volcanic vents there have been spewing carbon dioxide, and that has given researchers the opportunity to closely analyze the effect on marine life—specifically how, as ocean water absorbs more carbon dioxide and becomes more acidic, it corrodes coral and the shells of crustaceans. 

From that model, the researchers programmed a VR experience that speeds up the destructive process,  allowing a person to first interact with a reef full of life, and then be an up-close-witness to decay as species disappear. Ultimately, the person takes on the perspective of a coral, one whose branches break off with an audible crack.

At its best, virtual reality, says Bailenson, enables you to have a “dual presence,” where you know you’re still in a room wearing a headset, but also actually can feel that you’re at the bottom of the sea. It’s important, he says, for the VR environment to respond your body’s movements.  

It also should to be an experience that stimulates multiple senses, including touch when possible. The coral reef VR, for instance, creates the sensation of a fishing net brushing against you. If it feels natural, notes Bailenson, the brain is able to treat the experience as authentic.

That said, Bailenson concedes it’s still difficult to measure the long-term impact of VR immersion. In other words, can it actually spur people to change their behavior for an extended period of time? In a previous study, Bailenson found that people who chopped down virtual trees, using a joystick that vibrated like a chainsaw, used 20 percent less paper afterwards than others who read about cutting down trees or watched a video about the process.

But that study and most of the other research to date has relied on follow-up questionnaires a week or two later. So, researchers haven’t really been able to determine how long VR-induced empathy endures. Bailenson thinks that is about to change.

“With the advent of mobile equipment, we are planning to run longitudinal studies, which means collecting data from very large, demographically diverse data sets,” he says. “This will be very important in discovering the impact of VR on the general public—from children to the elderly, and those from all socio-economic statuses and backgrounds.”

Teachable moments

Bailenson and the Stanford team have already begun taking steps to move virtual reality teaching beyond the research lab. Earlier this year, the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience and a related VR documentary were featured in an arcade at the Trebeca Film Festival. “For a week, we had a constant line of people,” says Bailenson. “They were waiting in line to learn about marine science.”

And last week, the VR experience was made available to the public as a science education tool. It can now be downloaded for free and experienced on HTC Vive, a high-end virtual reality system that sells for about $800. While the consumer market for VR systems is still relatively small, the consensus is that sales will start to take off in the coming holiday season now that prices have begun dropping and headsets are no longer so unwieldy. Next year, according to the VR industry consulting firm KZero, more than 170 million units could be sold.

Bailenson hopes Stanford’s software will become a model for virtual reality “field trips” that will allow students to have experiences that can teach them about nature in a uniquely personal way.

To that end, he says museums have begun investing in VR systems to provide that opportunity.

“You’re not watching something, you’re doing it,” he says. “You learn by doing. These are magic, teachable moments.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.