By Jessica Oaks
One of the biggest barriers facing environmentalists – and more simply, groups looking to protect the environment – is the lack of impact global environmental changes have on people's daily lives. It is easy to brush aside urgent issues like dwindling arctic ice and rising sea temperatures when one doesn't witness or experience these things firsthand. And in many cases, there is no immediate impact; to truly grasp the effects of climate change, some forethought is often required.
Only through educational outreach can people not directly connected to the issue be made to understand its importance. But how can you make people empathetic of a cause or plight if there's no way to experience it other than in theory? You must find a way to make them experience it directly. And believe it or not, virtual reality can do just that.
Combining sight, sound, and movement (and occasionally touch and smell) into a single user experience, virtual reality can transport a person into wholly unique and new environments. Though the apparatus itself may look silly (after all, VR goggles still look like something out of 1980s science fiction), the worlds that virtual reality can create are anything but. It is a truly transformative technology and unlike anything else.
Think of the possibilities. Doctors could view the body in new and novel ways, which could transform the way that diagnosis and treatment are prescribed. Patients could be made to understand both the extent of their illness and the mechanics of their treatment like never before. Nurses and care providers could receive more in-depth training for greater treatment outcomes. Though the industry hasn't quite lived up to its promise yet, virtual reality is making inroads into the healthcare sphere, and further development is all but guaranteed. And healthcare isn't the only field benefitting from virtual reality. The scientific and educational fields are too, as mobile providers like T-Mobile bring affordable virtual reality experiences right to the classroom.
Colleges like Stanford University have experimented with virtual reality as a substitute for real-life experiences and found they do work. This is vital, because it shows that experiences can be informative and impactful even if they aren't "real," per se. Companies and organizations have leveraged this to help educate and engage people on the issue of climate change.
The Sierra Club, in conjunction with VR studio RYOT, made a virtual reality public service announcement advocating for policy change at the governmental level (and recruited respected actor Jared Leto to help). The New York Times utilized virtual reality to bring its readers under the ocean, to the top of the World Trade Center, and to the surface of Pluto – all in an effort to make educational experiences immersive and engaging. And scientists have created virtual reality experiences to help bring concepts to life in a way that can easily be grasped and understood by all. What better way to understand the impact trash has on ocean environments than to see it yourself?
Scientific consensus – backed by such organizations as NASA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and the European Environment Agency – states plainly that these changes are man-made and the result of carbon dioxide production, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels.
Understanding and accepting that climate change is man-made is vital to reversing the phenomenon – and education is the first step to achieving this goal, which VR applications can help make possible.
Image credit: Flickr/Stuart Renkin
Jessica Oaks is a freelance journalist who loves to cover technology news and the ways that technology makes life easier. She also blogs at FreshlyTechy.com. Check her out on Twitter @TechyJessy.