A scene from the virtual reality experience 'Tree' from the MIT Media Lab. (Photo: Screenshot from Vimeo/MIT Media Lab)
Ever gaze into the crowning branches of some massive tree and wonder what it might be like to hold silent court over the world below?
Thanks to a new virtual reality experience, you can trade your feet for roots and immerse yourself in the life cycle of a rainforest tree. The immersive project, aptly titled "Tree," is the brainchild of New York-based artists Milica Zec and Winslow Porter. The pair, who partnered with The Rainforest Alliance, chose their subject and the technology to bring it to life as a personal way to reveal firsthand the impacts of climate change.
"With this piece, we wanted to make deforestation appear as something deeply personal," Zec told Vive. "In 'Tree,' climate change happens to you. Beyond that, it's an intimate and solitary experience that hopefully increases respect for nature — how it functions, and how much it does for us on earth."
Engaging the senses
Whereas other VR experiences provide only visual and auditory engagement, Zec and Porter sought ways to immerse participants in "Tree" even further. To that end, they partnered with MIT's Media Lab to incorporate technology that produces wind, vibrations, heat and even custom rainforest-inspired scents.
"Immersive haptic elements are becoming increasingly integral for creators to help viewers suspend disbelief and fully submit to their momentary new world," Porter added.
Each participant in "Tree," which became available for download this week for home VR headsets, will experience the full life cycle of a kapok tree. You start as a seed, and then slowly break through the soil with your body as the trunk and your arms as its spreading canopy. After reaching full height (some kapok trees have been known to grow in excess of 250 feet), the VR experience takes a dark turn with the approach of industrial loggers.
"During the last few moments of the experience, several viewers cried or shouted in headset, and even more individuals told us the piece made climate change feel personal to them for the first time," Porter said.
Trees and Champagne
Actress Judi Dench in her backyard forest. (Photo: Judi Dench, 'My Oak Tree VR')
If a virtual life as a kapok tree isn't your cup of tea, perhaps a little stroll through Judi Dench's backyard forest in Surrey, England, might be more your speed? The British actress, who in 2017 revealed she keeps a private forest honoring departed loved ones, recently took part in a virtual reality project profiling a 200-year-old oak in her garden.
"It is about remembering, but it's through a living thing, so you don't remember them and stop," Dench told The Radio Times of her memorial forest. "The memory goes on, and gets more wonderful."
Those who download the 360-video not only receive a virtual tour of Dench's 6-acre garden, but also a 3D fly-through of the massive 25-ton oak and its impressive canopy.
"My life now is just trees," she joked to The Times. "Trees and Champagne."