Arts & Design

Can VR make climate change “real”?

The latest virtual reality technology is allowing audiences to see and feel the effects of our changing environment.

By Sunshine Flint — April 11, 2019

The first thing you notice is the smell: the earthy humus of the forest floor. No, it’s the tree roots that you see first, covered in green moss, tangled and rising to a massive trunk of a giant sequoia tree. Wait, it’s the wind soughing through the leaves — or is that the sound of your own breath?

All of your senses are engaged in this imaginative virtual reality experience at London’s Saatchi Gallery called “We Live in an Ocean of Air” (through May 5). It’s a brain-tickling immersion into a redwood forest, where you explore the outside — and inside — the trunk of a giant sequoia tree, while inhaling forest scents and listening to a rainstorm. You are an integral piece of the experience, as your breath becomes visible blue bubbles that you can wave around with your hand as they turn red, part of the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between you and the virtual natural world. The 20-minute installation, conceived and built by the creative collective Marshmallow Laser Feast, brings together technology, art and environmental activism in one fascinating journey.

The experience is part of the growing world of immersive VR that is connecting people to the planet in what some of its creators are calling environmental communication. “Ocean of Air” itself is the second installation in the Sequoia series that began with “Treehugger,” which won the Tribeca Film Festival Storyscapes Award in 2017, and the series is part of an exciting and visceral body of work coming from filmmakers, scientists and journalists connecting people to this pale blue dot and all of us who live on it.

“A challenge of climate change is that people don’t have a direct connection to it. They haven’t seen the poles melting or the rainforest destroyed,” says Jeremy Bailenson, professor and founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab where he studies the psychology of VR, and author of Experience on Demand. “VR is an experience generator. You’re turning your head to look or using your body to walk around. VR takes the notion of climate change and makes it visceral and now, not the future.”

From Greenland’s melting glaciers to endangered African elephants to the up-close effects of ocean acidification and dying coral reefs, immersive VR is bringing viewers inside the effects of climate change and closer to the beauty and the beasts of our planet that need saving.

Mike Jones

People walking through the "We Live in an Ocean of Air" VR installation at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

Bringing the natural world to life

The radical ability of VR to envelop the viewer directly in the world the camera sees — underwater, in a forest, thundering across the savannah — is what makes it such an engaging tool for positive change. If a picture tells a thousand words, then a 360-degree VR film or an interactive VR experience is a novel, filled with pathos, emotion and optimism. The creators of these VR experiences and films aim to change people’s minds and behaviors by putting them directly on top of a melting glacier or amidst the teeming richness of life on remote coral reefs — places most people will never get to see in real life.  

The most profound way that VR helps people to understand climate change or biodiversity or desertification is that it gives them a direct experience by letting them engage with the content. As some of Bailenson’s and his associates’ studies have shown, when people have direct experience of something, it positively affects their environmental behavior and intentions. It also creates a more profound emotional connection than straight video does.

Filming the glaciers for Greenland Melting.

Dan Brower

Filming the glaciers for Greenland Melting.

“People’s reactions are transformative,” says Erika Woolsey, Ph.D., marine biologist, about the 360 VR film IMMERSE she made as CEO of The Hydrous, exploring the delicate coral reefs off the island nation of Palau in Micronesia. “I've seen some strong reactions and some people even cry. As a scientist, I want to measure these effects and prove that it makes a difference.” She is continuing that work as an Ocean Design Fellow at Stanford University, working with Professor Bailenson this year at his lab, and as a National Geographic Explorer. The nine-minute film is has CGI elements overlayed and it takes people on a virtual dive to the endangered reefs, making them accessible to all who put the headset on. “My co-founders and I identified this unfortunate disconnection between people and the ocean, between scientific discovery and public action,” says Dr. Woolsey. “VR has the power to show you places you will never go or see. It’s important to make the abstract concrete and that translation is a way to solve these problems.”

The makers of the 360 VR film Greenland Melting, led by Nonny de la Peña, founder and CEO of Emblematic Group, also wanted to create a connection through VR technology. They partnered with PBS’ Frontline and NOVA and filmed the fast-melting glaciers and turned it into something the audience could actually be a part of. “You are with the scientists dropping thermometers from the NASA plane, it’s active,” explains de la Peña. “You can see the glacier recede in front of your eyes and it demystifies the experience.” This type of immersive journalism allows people to connect with complex issues. “Telling what’s going on with the planet is one of the most pressing journalistic stories of our era.”

Mike Jones

The technology to communicate

Getting those stories out to the viewing public is also part of the equation. Today, the ever-more sophisticated technology in room-based or location-based experiences allows people the ability to walk around and interact with the virtual world they see, such as “Ocean of Air,” which is powered by HP’s powerful Z VR backpacks. “The HP solution is really robust and doesn’t overheat which is super important when you have a high turnover,” says Barney Steel, creative director of Marshmallow Laser Feast. Six people at a time can enter the VR experience untethered and spend 20 minutes exploring the redwood forest. “Projects like these combine creativity, innovation and technology with a message that inspires reflection on what’s around us, our impact and how best to take care of environment,” says Joanna Popper, HP’s head of location-based VR entertainment.

Filming a manta ray in the reefs off Palau for The Hydrous's IMMERSE.

Pete Niesen

Filming a manta ray in the reefs off Palau for The Hydrous's IMMERSE.

HP backpacks were also used when the 360 film of Greenland Melting was created as a room-scale VR experience to measure audiences responses to viewing the film that way and as a straight video. The study found that participants who viewed the VR experience were more likely to seek out immersive VR journalism content and also buy a VR device than those who had just watched the video.

Meanwhile National Geographic has partnered with SPACES, a leader in location-based entertainment, to turn the Grosvenor Auditorium at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., into a shared VR theater experience with 450 VR headsets and dedicated servers. Large audiences are able to watch 360 3D VR films, turning their heads to follow the action or taking off the headsets when the story dictates. On April 23, Dr. Woolsey will present Manta Ray Eden at the auditorium, a 360 VR film made with Jason McGuigan of Horizon Productions, from the surplus footage they had after making IMMERSE. “I’ll be able to narrate live while they are in the experience,” explains Dr. Woolsey. “While some understandable criticism of VR is that it can be isolating. I found it to be a really social and compellng tool that invites conversation. I don’t want to convince people with data, but connect with them through shared experiences.”

“VR has the power to show you places you will never go or see.”

Dr. Erika Woolsey, marine biologist and National Geographic Explorer

Pete Niesen

Virtual reality cameraman Rick Mistiv dives deep while filming The Hydrous's IMMERSE.

Empathy through experience

This ability to connect and engage is VR technology’s powerful effect in both 360 VR film and immersive VR experiences. “The awe of the biodiversity translates in VR in a way it doesn’t in video or photography,” says Steel about “Ocean of Air.” “You can see your breath leave your lungs — where does your body begin and end? People will learn not to hurt nature.”

While immersive VR isn’t yet changing the behavior of everyday consumers, Professor Bailenson is optimistic the technology can be used to work with politicians in countries that are suffering from climate change right now and help them adapt. “We can help decision makers make the right decisions since climate change is already here,” he says.

The IMMERSE  film was shown to 12 politicians on Palau, most of whom don’t scuba dive or snorkel. For the first time, they watched from underwater as dive tourists on a raft unknowingly kicked and dislodged soft coral with their scuba fins. Their reactions ranged from calling for it to be required viewing for all scuba divers to requiring climate change research be part of the country’s ocean policy.

“The tech is powerful and scalable,” says Dr. Woolsey. “This is how I get everyone to protect and care about the ocean.”


Step into the world of location-based entertainment.