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Virtual Reality Can Bring Environmental Education to the Next Level

By 3p Contributor

By David Evans

Virtual reality is here, and it’s poised to be one of our greatest conservation tools.

What used to fuel sci-fi imagination can now be experienced in the comfort of your home. Tech is developing faster than most of us can keep up with, and the possibilities for its applications are endless.

One example is the Deep VR project, which transports users under sea for a meditative experience.


While the technology is groundbreaking, the concept is simple. Your breathing controls your movement within the underwater virtual reality. Breathe deeper and you move up; breathe shallower and you move down. Imagine an underwater obstacle course designed to steady your breathing with consistent, deep and slow breaths. The result is a VR meditation game that leaves you relaxed and refreshed.

While this immersive experience is only in beta and requires a headset and waist strap, Google Cardboard is a simpler version of VR that is accessible to everyone with a cell phone. For less than $20, you can access hundreds of immersive experiences and start creating your own.

VR in education

VR is positioned to reshape entertainment, but its potential for an educational revolution is even bigger.

Imagine the virtual classroom. Rather than paragraphs of text and outdated pictures, students will go on virtual field trips. Studying benthic marine life in biology class? Let’s fathom the extreme depths of the Marianas in a virtual tour of one of the last frontiers. How about a walk through the streets of ancient Rome or attending Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech in person?

Absorbing information will be faster, easier and more engaging.

So, should we start recording now for the future generations? At the rate we are consuming and polluting, it’s probable that virtual landscapes might be the last remnant of the amazon or the Great Barrier Reef within our lifetime. And we should preserve what we can now.

It’s troubling to imagine our children vividly seeing what they missed out on. While much more encompassing than a written account, the virtual experience just isn’t the same. But it’s impact can be much bigger than even the best Nat Geo footage, and that’s why I think it has the chance to actually help us conserve so these amazing displays of nature will still be there for us to enjoy.

Our biggest problem is we are too disconnected from our impact

The declining health of our planet is redefined and updated on a regular basis. Fifteen years ago articles like this, "Humans damaging the earth faster than it can recover, UN finds," would have been big news, but today they are commonplace. The story of our dying planet is losing shock value and we are overwhelmed, maybe even apathetic.

Environmental problems seem so big and our individual impact is so small. We are lost in the crowd, often feeling powerless. Why vote? Trump can’t possibly win … right? But your vote does count and occasionally we connect the dots in a way that helps us see we, as individuals, actually can influence the way things work.

Documentaries like "Food Inc.," "SuperSize Me" and "Black Fish" have proven to be extremely effective in changing our daily habits and those habits add up. After the release of "Black Fish," SeaWorld’s income dropped by $15.9 million, and the Animal Welfare Act was updated to include cetacean captivity, allocating $1 million to the study of the impact of captivity on marine mammals.

Video is an extremely powerful medium. It’s growing like crazy: YouTube watch time grew by at least 50 percent every year for the last three years -- and we are getting better at using it to tell stories, convey messages and educate.

Reaching the generation that has the power to make change is going to require engaging on a level that resonates with them.

The power an experience can have

The documentary "Planet Earth" had a huge impact on me when I was in high school. The brilliant combination of high-definition cameras and a suspenseful story line transfixed me on the natural world. I felt like I was there watching, and in an instant I cared about something I hadn’t previously thought twice about.

Perhaps the most impactful educational experience is The Overview Effect. People who have gone to outer space and seen the world from above have a life-changing experience that inspires them to become environmental advocates and stewards.

These aha moments of inspiration and epiphany are so critical to every movement. They change habits and the course of history. Everyone will have their cause, and they are all equally important to the big picture.

If we can bring nature to life and educate through new digital mediums, we will be planting the seed for a new generation of innovative and active world citizens that will solve our most challenging problems.

The bottom line: It's time to look closely at tech in education

The closer we get to reality, the easier it will be for us to understand our impact and take corrective action. Innovations in renewable energy and the Internet of Things are expected to provide fixes to our most challenging environmental problems, but tech's biggest contribution might actually be in helping solve our biggest problem: education.

Image credit: Flickr/Maurizio Pesce

David Evans is the founder of prch, a resource for eco-minded men. He is a minimalist, environmentalist, and conscious consumer with a background in environmental studies, conservation, and tech. Learn to improve your environmental and social impact @theprch.

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