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How Virtual Reality Can Help the Environment

By 3p Contributor

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.

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality – like books, television, radio, film, and the arts – is a medium for transmitting an idea or concept. The difference between virtual reality and other information outlets is that it allows individuals to be participants in their experience, not merely spectators. This unique relationship can provide for an experience that is not possible with other mediums. Reading about a subject is one thing; experiencing it firsthand is something altogether different.

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.

What are its commercial uses?

Thanks to companies like Samsung, Oculus, Google, and Sony, affordable virtual reality experiences are starting to become the norm rather than the exception. The commercial uses of virtual reality are many – perhaps most obviously, virtual reality is a perfect platform for gaming. With immersive environments and lifelike user interaction, VR gaming promises to deliver experiences that are more real, dynamic, and thrilling than ever. Already, gamers can climb mountains and engage in high-orbit dogfights. But gaming isn't the only commercial outlet for virtual reality. There is ample opportunity for its use in the educational, healthcare, and scientific fields as well.

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.

How is virtual reality being used to improve matters?

It's a good question. Just how can virtual reality help prevent climate change? Put simply, by helping develop a sense of empathy and altruism among people from all socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures. Most people don't experience climate change on a day-to-day basis (or if they do, are unaware that climate change is the root cause of what it is they are experiencing). By providing virtual experiences via virtual reality, organizations can help build these emotions in skeptics and the uniformed alike. Children and adults can come to understand climate change and its impact by experiencing it in their own way – rather than by merely hearing or reading about it.

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?

But what is climate change?

Of course, this discussion is somewhat moot without discussing climate change itself. Climate change is an umbrella term used to describe global warming, and the many effects of this phenomenon, which include increasing water temperature, loss of polar and land ice, extreme weather phenomenon, and other environmental changes, including habitat loss.

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.

Virtual reality as a tool for changing the world

Ultimately, virtual reality is a content medium that can inform and influence the public at large by immersing people in unique experiences. Just like literature, theater, film, television, and the arts, the topics and concepts that virtual reality tackle over the coming decades will be as diverse as the people who create this new type of content. But where virtual reality stands alone is that it provides an experience – it creates a relationship where the viewer is more than a spectator; he or she is a participant, and this makes all the difference in the impact that VR content can and will have.

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.

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