VR Helps Increase Environmental Issues Awareness

VR Helps Increase Environmental Issues Awareness
November 6, 2016

In the cow project, participants walked around a virtual pasture on all fours, were jabbed by a virtual cattle prod, and told they were to be loaded on a truck. Photograph: Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication
Scientists have taken the notion ‘you are what you eat’ to a new level by using virtual reality to help people see the world through the eyes of a cow – or a piece of coral – to make them feel part of the natural world.
With several consumer virtual reality headsets now on the market, researchers hope experiencing life from an animal’s point of view could change environmental behaviour where other methods have failed.
As cows, participants donned virtual reality headsets and were left to walk around a virtual pasture on all fours, jabbed by a virtual cattle prod, and told they were to be loaded on to a truck.
As coral, volunteers saw the reef around them decay as the ocean acidified, their own ‘body’ corrode, and their branches break off with a crack.
These immersive experiences led people to feel more connected with nature than those who simply watched the simulation play out on a screen, the study found. The aim of the experiments was to make the distant consequences of damaging consumption much more real.
“One of the biggest problems with environmental issues is that there’s a huge temporal gap, so it seems like whatever you do in the present doesn’t really connect to the environmental problems in the future,” explained study co-author Grace Ahn, an assistant professor of advertising at the University of Georgia.
“Virtual reality is an amazing tool in terms of being able to show you the really solid causal relationships - this is what you do today, and here’s what might happen 100 years down the road,” she said.
The research is part of an emerging field that uses virtual reality to enhance empathy. In a 2013 study co-authored by Ahn, volunteers who were given virtual reality headsets that simulated red-green colour-blindness spent twice as long helping those with the condition compared to participants who merely imagined it.
“We were quite encouraged by these results and we wanted to take it to the next level to check if people could take the perspective of, not just other people, but also other animate beings, including animals,” Ahn explained.
One of the unsolved challenges for virtual reality is simulating touch, in order to convince users that they truly inhabit their virtual bodies. In Ahn’s experiment, some participants were prodded in real life to make being virtually poked with a cattle prod or bumped by a fishing net as coral feel more real.
The study, which also involved researchers from Stanford University and the University of Connecticut and was recently published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, does not claim virtual reality produces instantaneous transformations in levels of environmental compassion. But it does argue it could be used as a valuable tool in promoting ecological awareness.
After taking off their headsets, “people said ‘that’s really cool, I’ve never thought about it this way’,” said Ahn.
A short period as a virtual cow is unlikely to leave someone “reborn into this person who has a thorough interest in environmental issues,” she acknowledged, but longer-term exposure – perhaps during school – could be “a lot more effective”.
“I believe that it’s able to amplify the qualities that you already have,” Ahn added.

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