VR world creates empathy through action

Immersive yourself in our dying planet to foster tangible change.
Ocean VR

The world’s magnificent coral reefs are predicted to corrode in waters made acidic by the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In order to raise awareness about the underwater situation, researchers at Stanford University in the US have designed an immersive world to bring the public closer to the problem.

The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience, a virtual reality (VR), free science education tool, can take you to the bottom of the sea, then fast-forward to the end of the century, when many coral reefs are predicted to die.

“You’re not watching something, you’re doing it,” said communication Professor Jeremy Bailenson, whose Virtual Human Interaction Lab developed the software. “You learn by doing. These are magic, teachable moments.”

The virtual reality tool takes viewers from the start of harmful emissions, the tailpipes of our vehicles, into the ocean where it contributes to the acidification of the sea and the demise of our coral reefs.

As the journey unfolds, a narrator explains the processes and encourages you to interact by doing activities such as a species count. Hand controls with haptic feedback make the experience more immersive.

Researchers hope the tool will create a greater sense of empathy than a similar video-only experience thanks to something called embodied cognition, the effect of the body’s actions on the mind.

The video premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, where attendants could watch it through virtual reality headwear. “We had a line of dozens of people for 11 hours a day, six days straight,” said Bailenson, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.