A scene from Wevr's theBlu.
Inventor and systems theorist Buckminster Fuller said that "people perceived the Earth as flat and infinite, and that was the root of all their misbehavior."
Fuller believed in the power of imagery to help us view Earth’s interconnected systems. Modern virtual reality (VR) technology was plugged into pop culture in the 1980s and released to the public with the 2016 launch of Oculus Rift. Now, the technology has finally developed enough to take people to the places where climate change is happening — including the inaccessible deep sea.
Consulting firm KZero predicts that 170 million consumer VR sets will be sold by 2018. I haven’t had the chance to experience much VR screen time, but as a born storyteller, I believe in the power of being transported to another world. It’s especially important when that water-constrained world exists within ours, or is a projection of what will happen if we don’t stop over-fishing, ocean acidification and marine plastic pollution.
In honor of World Water Day, strap on your cardboard and dive into these 360-degree videos.
The Crystal Reef
A Stanford University study showed that viewers exposed to a nature-based virtual reality simulation felt a sense of interconnection with nature, heightened cognizance of their carbon footprint and a more imminent sense of environmental risk for a week after the experience. The result was more pronounced than when they simply watched a video about climate change.
Putting the study to use, the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience is a free educational tool that shows how ocean acidification — caused by absorbing carbon dioxide from air — will impact marine ecosystems by the end of the century. A related project, developed by the school’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, immerses viewers in an underwater ecosystem rapidly changing due to carbon emissions.
This virtual reality film by Conservation International and the Here Be Dragons studio was featured at GreenBiz 17 in Phoenix. Without issuing a single plane ticket, the short documentary took viewers to east Indonesia’s Raja Ampat islands.
There, Papuan fisherman-turned-coral reef scientist Ronald Mambrasar brings viewers along as he and his young son, Valen, monitor the Bird’s Head Seascape. The region is home to 70 species of fish, 2,500 islands and reefs, and leatherback turtles. But in the 1990s, the reef was like a ghost town devastated by unregulated fishing and poaching.
In 2004, Conservation International and 30 partners launched an effort to revive nearly 9 million acres of the seascape, bringing down poaching by 90 percent. The stark contrast between ecological devastation and vibrancy showcases nature’s fragility and resilience.
Buy a Lady a Drink
A drink of clean water, that is. Access to the resource allowed the Honduran family featured in this VR experience time to study, safety from water-borne diseases and the ability to grow a vegetable garden.
Guillermina Hernández used to walk to the river eight times per day to collect water for her family, much of which was spilled on the bumpy road home. She was one of more than 663 million people who lack access to clean water globally.
Stella Artois and Water.Org worked with Mother creative studio to share the family’s story and the message that we can be the first generation to solve the water crisis. First, we have to recognize that the crisis is real to many communities.
Scott Harrison, charity:water founder, called VR an "empathy machine."
The nonprofit filmed a week in the life of Selam, a 13-year-old-girl from Ethiopia whose life revolves around an eight-hour walk to the nearest water source. When she gets there, it is filled with leeches and flies — a gruesome vision you can’t escape when immersed in 3D.
When Selam’s village finally receives water infrastructure, they celebrate, but viewers are left knowing that the world is far from a solution to global water shortages. We have seen how common water-constrained life is. When The Source debuted in 2016, Morgan Stanley donated $30 per view to give one person clean water, with the goal of gifting 10,000 clean water in three weeks.
Subsea Virtual Reality
On the opposite end of the activist spectrum, General Electric (GE) forays into the world of underwater oil exploration.
The experience, meant to be viewed on an Oculus Rift while sitting in a vibrating chair, mimics GE’s subsea oil technology and the submarine that discovers and collects oil deposits 4 miles below water surface.
Although GE isn’t known for cutting-edge consumer advertising, AdWeek reported that the company wanted to be more transparent about the workings of the complex undersea technology. Not many people are going to be certified to dive to a place with near-freezing temperature and 659 tons of pressure per square foot pressing on the sub’s windows.
While we’re still running on the slick stuff, it is interesting to see where oil comes from.
Aftershock follows Krishna, a plumber trying to restore water to his Nepalese village, Khareltok, after the 2015 earthquake. Homes and household toilets are ruined, and the water supply is disrupted and dirty. Still, the human spirit prevails.
The VR documentary from WaterAid illustrates a real-life hero’s journey in a remote region of the world where water access is a key to survival. Then, it asks you to donate money to Nepal, which is still reeling from the quake’s aftershocks.
According to LuCID creator Jeremy McKane, "The shortest path between two humans is art."
In an art installation that debuted in Dallas, the fashion photographer and VR artist put viewers into a state of alternate reality that shifts based on their state of mind.
To access the video, users wear a neuro-feedback headset that manipulates the images in the installation based on their brainwaves. If the viewer can hold a meditative state, they see beautiful images of whales and dolphins. If attention is scattered, images of marine plastic trash float by.
McKane dreamed up the concept while traveling to remote places for underwater fashion shoots. Even though humans weren’t around, their tracks were everywhere in the form of plastic trash. The artist wanted to use LuCID to change people’s attitudes towards oceans — and show that if we change our mindset, we can change the world.
360 LUCiD Teaser Footage from Jeremy McKane on Vimeo.
Oceans are polluted with 1.4 billion tons of trash per year, killing aquatic life, polluting beaches and contaminating seafood. Yet, we rarely have a chance to understand the marine beauty that is lost to convenience.
Los Angeles-based virtual reality studio Wevr, named one of FastCompany’s "most innovative companies in 2017," is making ocean conservation a blockbuster topic. TheBlu, a three-episode virtual reality show, allows viewers to explore sunken ships, observe a reef migration and come eye-to-eye with a giant blue whale.
"The immersion that VR brings leads to awareness, and awareness leads to understanding and consideration, and therefore a higher probability of requisite action," theBlu Director Jake Rowell told GreenBiz. "Moreover, VR taps straight into a part of our brain that let us be kids again. With VR, we can do things we never thought we’d have a chance to do, play around and explore new territory."
For those who lack access to an Oculus Touch, theBlu is on view at the L.A. Natural History Museum at the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo until April.
In another deep-sea dive from Here Be Dragons/VRSE.works, you can swim with a sperm whale, the largest predator in the world, clocking in at 32,000 lbs and 50 feet in length.
The live-action VR film explores 100 feet below the ocean’s surface to discover how the whales use echolocation to hunt and showcases their complex intelligence. Click Effect is about Fabrice Schnöller, founder of DAREWIN and photographer Fred Buyle, but the main star is the ocean and its creatures.
Click Effect debuted at the 2016 TriBeCa film festival virtual arcade, and is the first in a series of immersive journalism experiments by New Frontier at Sundance Institute, published by The New York Times Op-Docs.