Can Stanford’s Deep Dive Into Virtual Reality Help Save the Oceans?

Stanford researchers are releasing free VR software for the HTC Vive in hopes that it will change people for the better

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The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experiences uses virtual reality to take people to a dying coral reef, where they can pick up objects and hunt for ocean life
The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience uses virtual reality to take people to a dying coral reef, where they can pick up objects and hunt for ocean life
Image: Virtual Human Interaction Lab/Stanford University

Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson and fellow researchers at the school’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) have been exploring the effects of virtual reality on human behavior since the late 1990s. They’ve written countless papers documenting the fact that experiences in a virtual world—like exercising more, saving for retirement, using less paper, or showing more empathy—change behavior in the real one. They initially used expensive, custom-built hardware for their research; the kind of VR systems available today, like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, didn’t exist when they conducted most of their experiments.

But now that VR systems have gotten out of the lab and into the world, the team is beginning to let some of its work loose as well.

This week, for the first time, the researchers publicly released one of their potentially behavior-changing VR simulations for free download for the HTC Vive. The Ocean Acidification Experience is intended to teach users about the chemistry behind ocean acidification, as well as the problems it causes, and what they can do to help prevent it. To hit those marks, of course, the simulation has to be engaging enough to keep users involved.

Bailenson hopes he’s hit that sweet spot, and that the software will go viral. How would the group measure success? Says Bailenson: 

At the very least, people who become aware of it will now at least have heard of ocean acidification. Even better would be if all the 120,000 people who have the Vive hardware would download it and show it to friends. A home run for us would be if Google and Facebook and Oculus and Sony and all the other companies making VR hardware would include this with the hardware. Because if the tech companies embrace it fully, when VR gets into the classroom, our software will go with it.

And why shouldn’t the lab hit a home run? Bailenson arguably has more experience creating virtual worlds than anybody out there. And, today, there’s a dearth of high-quality VR experiences available. Plus, consumers always like free stuff. “Nobody is making money off of it. It isn’t activism; it is marine science, pure education,” he says. (The development effort was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.)

Bailenson, along with Roy Pea, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and Fiorenza Micheli and Kristy Kroeker, two Stanford marine biologists (Kroeker is now at the University of California at Santa Cruz), began developing the simulation in 2013. “There were whispers in the air that consumer virtual reality was coming,” Bailenson said. “So we started this project thinking we were going to share it.”

Bailenson describes the general story line:

It starts with a globe. We talk about how we can see climate on the coastlines, but nobody can see how carbon dioxide affects the oceans. We then take you into a crowded city. You touch an exhaust pipe, and you then see carbon dioxide go into the atmosphere, and you’re told to follow one particular molecule.

Then you are in a boat, on the ocean, you see your molecule come towards you. You touch it and push it into the water; when it lands you see the chemical reaction that creates acid; that’s the chemistry lesson.

Then you are underwater, at this special reef in Ischia, Italy. This reef has naturally occurring carbon dioxide from underwater volcanoes; it shows how all our oceans will look by 2100. We take you to a normal reef, where you see coral, and count sea snails and species of fish. Then you go to an acidified reef; you see that algae have taken over the reef, there is no coral; there are fewer fish species, and no sea snails.

The final scene tells you what you can do to help, prevent this future, including managing your own carbon footprint, talking to decision makers, and supporting research organizations.

People without an HTC Vive can download a related 360-degree video.

The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience is the Virtual Human Interaction Labs’ first attempt, as Bailenson puts it, “to come up with prosocial content that will help people lead better lives.” But it’s far from the last. Next up, Bailenson says, is an empathy-building virtual reality experience that shows what it feels like to go from having a home to being homeless. Look for that in a couple of months…or so. “We are a strong research lab that studies how VR affects people,” he says. “Production doesn’t come naturally to us.”

But for the chance to go from just studying how VR can change the world, to actually using VR for good, it’s worth the effort.

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