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Visualizing Climate Change with Virtual Reality

Words by 3p Contributor
Data & Technology
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By Emma Bailey

As the years pass, and the reality of anthropogenic climate change has become widely accepted within the scientific community, most regular citizens still lack a sophisticated understanding of the scientific factors at play in global warming. Recognizing the need to communicate the severity of current circumstances, scientists are looking to new technology to help broaden awareness of the global issue. Virtual reality, back in the spotlight after years in relative obscurity, has already proven to be a powerful tool in getting people to rethink their relationship to the planet and its resources.

A few halting steps were taken toward virtual reality between the '60s and '80s. A fully mechanical “Sensorama” offered smell and touch stimuli while subjects watched short films, and early flight simulators strove to create as immersive an environment as possible. These laughably crude efforts paved the way for further developments in the '90s, which actually saw a few production devices reach market. Unfortunately, the hardware of the time was not powerful enough to create fully engaging virtual environments, and most of the products on offer flopped hard.

Virtual reality had almost entirely disappeared from the mainstream until just a few years ago, when the Oculus Rift began developing in earnest. Realizing the potential of this new technology, social media giant Facebook acquired it from its initial developers for $2 billion in early 2014. A consumer version is expected to be unveiled in 2016. Microsoft didn’t take that news lying down and intends to introduce a competing system, called HoloLens, also in 2016. Sony's game-oriented Project Morpheus is expected to hit the shelves in the same year. Furthermore, as these three companies go head-to-head in other aspects of tech enterprise -- such as the development of new satellite Internet solutions and advanced social search algorithms -- we can expect the virtual reality space to yield increasingly innovative results as well.

Climate change, like many large-scale issues, is a dilemma which most people feel is outside of their direct control. However, public inaction and lack of support for certain environmental policies over the long term creates a dangerous disconnect. However, significant research has shown that the introduction of market-ready virtual reality (VR) devices could be important in visualizing for a lay audience the consequences of environmental degradation. This is a topic that's hard to intuitively grasp for most people because the dangers will only manifest themselves slowly over a period of decades. By harnessing the possibilities of virtual reality, environmental advocates can make the subject real to millions of people whose only knowledge of environmental abuses and climate change has hitherto been abstract and theoretical.

There have already been some significant in developments made in this area. Although VR headsets aren't available to the general public as yet, researchers have been able to conduct a variety of experiments using prototype or custom hardware. At Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, scientists are striving to “design, test, and distribute virtual reality interventions that teach the concept of empathy.” Cultivating “effective altruism” in any context is a difficult task, but mirroring the emotions of the environment is almost impossible for a species that has been raised to see reality as a bounty to be harvested without remorse.

In an earlier experiment, the lab initiated a project in which participants either cropped down a virtual tree or read about the experience in a detailed description. In following tests, those that took part in the VR simulation reduced their usage of paper products by 20 percent in comparison to those who did not. In another experiment, test subjects were asked to virtually eat coal while bathing in order to fully understand the amount of resources they require to enjoy a hot shower. Beginning last year the lab took their research under the sea, using virtual reality helmets to immerse participants in the reality of ocean acidification. Across these simulations, it was determined that even after the experiment was complete, the change in attitude towards the environment among participants remained.

Besides placing people in imaginary situations, virtual reality can turn people into witnesses to events thousands of miles away. In the nascent field of virtual reality news reporting, the Des Moines Register has achieved a startling success. It used VR mechanisms to cover the history of a local farm and the numerous economic and environmental challenges faced by the family in ownership. The story got more than 400,000 page-views, an order of magnitude more than most popular traditional news articles. If a regional outlet like the Register can draw in such an audience, we can only imagine what kind of numbers the New York Times or Chicago Tribune would be able to attract if they embraced this type of immersive journalism. Without a doubt, the real consequences of environmental change, such as severe flooding and desertification, can be illustrated in a more visceral way by harnessing the growing potential of virtual reality.

It's clear that VR tech goes far beyond its initial gaming applications. As the technology improves and the consequences of climate change inaction continue to unfold, VR will become a potent tool in the arsenal of those who wish to highlight the pivotal importance of sustainability, clean energy generation and other Earth-saving tactics.

Image credit: Mike Lewelling, National Park Service

Emma Bailey is a freelance writer and blogger from the Midwest. After going to college in Florida she relocated to Chicago, where she now lives with a roommate and two rabbits. She primarily covers entertainment topics and issues pertaining to the environment. Find her on Twitter @Emma_Bailey90

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