Can Virtually Destroying the Environment Make You Care About It?

Virtually cutting down a tree (courtesy Virtual Human Interaction Lab)
Virtually cutting down a tree (courtesy Virtual Human Interaction Lab)

Environmental issues can often seem abstract, our individual responsibility difficult to measure. At Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), virtual reality is being researched as a means to make everything from climate change to deforestation a personal, impactful experience.

“Virtual reality can bring people inside of a degraded ocean ecosystem, and show how their behavior is contributing to the problem,” Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of VHIL, told Hyperallergic. In August, Bailenson discussed the potential for virtual reality (VR) with the San Francisco Chronicle, including one project called Coral World that demonstrates the destruction of a coral reef due to pollution.

He pointed out that for decades, VR has been used in “marketable” training applications like the military and product development, but for the less profit-oriented environmental training, a university research setting is more ideal. And VR creates an immediacy with limitless possibilities for experience, where the brain treats a virtual setting as real, which can result in real world impacts. “For fifteen years, my lab has been using VR as a lever to teach empathy, for example our techniques reduce prejudice, increase the psychological connection to the future, create self confidence, promotes altruism, and increase our connection with nature,” Bailenson explained.

In addition to the coral reef experience, there’s also a project where participants virtually cut down a tree (an action that reportedly reduced their real-world use of paper), and take a virtual hot shower while wearing a virtual reality headset, which was then measured out in coal to show energy usage. The results of the shower VR, accepted for publication a week ago, showed that participants exposed to vivid messages did reduce the energy consumed by using cooler water, suggesting “that vivid messages experienced in an immersive virtual environment can elicit pro-environmental behaviors.”

Below you can check out the coral reef experience in a video from the San Francisco Chronicle, and you can download Coral World for Oculus Rift at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab site.

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