A New Vehicle for Change: Can Virtual Reality Drive Conservation?

by Chandler Green

In one week, hundreds of world leaders will come together in Morocco to address the global challenge of climate change at the 22nd Conference of Parties (COP22). However, unlike meetings before, 40 representatives will journey even farther – 4,300 additional miles deep into the Amazon Rainforest to experience the planet’s most diverse and most threatened ecosystems. They will not travel by typical means of flying or sailing; instead, they will voyage in a new vehicle for change: virtual reality.


To the Frontlines of Conservation

 Conservational International (CI), a nonprofit dedicated to protecting nature, is harnessing the power of virtual reality to take audiences to the frontlines of conservation. Its latest virtual reality film about conservation in the Amazon Rainforest will debut at COP22 to a select group of leaders, who will break from negotiations to don Oculus Rift headsets. Thanks to technological upgrades since the nineties, such 360-degree immersive “screenings” are now possible.jungle-1340466209nfd

Although most content development is currently driven by gaming and entertainment, CI’s lead visual storyteller, Jennifer Shoemaker, sees virtual reality as a crucial “tool for conservationists.” Decision makers may not be moved by facts and figures about environmental degradation, but Jennifer believes that immersive storytelling has the ability to engage them emotionally.

At an event hosted by AU’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking on October 18th, Jennifer told audiences about her previous career as a park ranger in Yosemite and Rocky Mountain National Parks. “During my time as a ranger, I have been charged by grizzly bears and told visitors the location of the restroom more times than I can count,” she remarked. She also explained that her position as a ranger gave her a raw, intimate view of nature rarely experienced by others. Now virtual reality can share this unique perspective and place audiences in the shoes of rangers out in the wild.


Evidence of Environmental Empathy

The unreleased Amazon film is not CI’s first attempt at fostering environmental empathy through virtual reality. In June, it released the seven-minute film, Valen’s Reef, about a father and son working to restore a reef on the coast of Indonesia. The virtual reality piece reveals how the Raja Ampat reef, home to 75 percent of the world’s coral species, was almost destroyed by over-fishing and poaching. This decimation negatively impacted the health and the economy of nearby Papuan communities, so CI initiated community-led conservation to restore the resource.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Viewers of Valen’s Reef experience the profound impact of conservation through striking visual differences in marine biodiversity. Swimming under water with the father-son duo, they see healthy, lush reefs teaming with life restored by conservation in contrast with silty, lifeless waters harmed by degradation.

The success story portrayed in Valen’s Reef is surely compelling and educational, but can virtual reality experiences influence decisions in real life? Research from Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab suggests so. To test the impact of virtual reality experiences about deforestation, VHIL researchers had Stanford students cut down a virtual redwood with a virtual chainsaw. They measured students’ attitudes toward deforestation through a survey, and they also implemented a clever test to put these beliefs into action. Before participants left the lab, a researcher pretended to accidentally spill a glass of water to see how many napkins participants used. The virtual lumberjacks used 20 percent fewer napkins than those in the control group who just read about deforestation. In another experiment, they showed that an embodied experience in virtual reality can impact energy consumption. Participants who took a virtual shower and virtually ate the energy equivalent in coal used less energy in real life than those who were not exposed to vivid messages. These experiments suggest that virtual reality can impact individual behaviors and perhaps stimulate collective support for environmental action.


Distribution in a New Media Platform

While research suggests that investment in virtual reality is worthwhile, conservationists face the challenge of reaching audiences in a young market. High-end headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (priced around $600) are not yet affordable for the average consumer. Less expensive options like Google Cardboard, with 5 million headsets sold, are more mainstream but far from ubiquitous. For now, environmental and social change creators must carefully straddle multiple viewing platforms to generate impact.

CI is navigating distribution by holding targeted screenings and creating more accessible versions for a public library. For example, it premiered Valen’s Reef at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity to exclusive audiences and held screenings at other events, including the Aspen Ideas Festival. It also made the film publicly available through the Within App and launching a YouTube 360 version, which has nearly 1 million views. Jennifer said CI will use a similar approach with the new Amazon film: focusing first on the targeted screening for leaders at COP22, followed by a public release in January.

Despite current challenges in reaching the masses, the novelty of this new technology may be what makes conservation experiences in virtual reality all the more powerful. Only time will tell if this new vehicle can truly drive environmental and social change into uncharted territory.


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