Can virtual reality drive sustainable behaviour?
Things that are farther away from our eyes and our touch are more likely elude our attention.
Pollution, meat-eating, climate change — these are all examples of topics we probably know about, but avoid confronting in daily life.
It’s not that humans are terrible at empathy. Rather, we lack a way to make empathy more accessible. We lack the direct and immediate sensory experiences needed to make lasting impressions on important issues otherwise distant to our touch.
Could virtual reality be the missing piece?
Imagine opening your eyes and seeing a reef of bright, healthy coral. Suddenly, the colours begin to fade and the coral body disintegrates under increasingly acidic conditions. Algae consumes the remains, leaving a barren sea bottom.
Now, imagine being virtually transported to the Shawattama First Nations community in Manitoba and witnessing the transformation of their natural lands into a toxic contamination swamp. Children forage for food in the dumps and are made fatally sick from the contaminated soils and water.
It all looks, sounds, and feels real.
Your senses are fed a computer-generated simulation, transporting you to another place and time.
Can these virtual experiences create the kind of empathy that drives viewers to action?
In 2015, Amnesty International ran a successful VR campaign to raise awareness and funds for war-torn Aleppo, Syria. People were virtually transported to the streets of Aleppo, where thousands of civilians have been injured and killed from barrel bombings. The virtual experience was said to have “elicited both a strong, emotional response from the public and a 16% increase in people signing up to direct debit donations” towards Amnesty’s human rights work.
At Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, studies have shown that people respond to VR simulations through changes in daily habits, perceptions, and behaviour. Roots and catalysts of pro-environmental behaviour have long been an enigma for researchers and psychologists.
But rather than relying solely on environmental knowledge, feelings and emotional involvement are needed to drive eco-conscious behaviour.
These deep emotional responses are driven by intimate sensory experiences previously only achievable through real-life interactions.
Stanford’s VHI Lab teamed up with marine scientists to design a virtual replica of a reef off the Italian coast. The visually stimulating simulation models what could happen if our current rates of fossil fuel usage continue in the next few decades. Preliminary results have shown that those who watched the movie exhibited greater empathy for the environment, which translated into more pro-environmental behaviour compared to those in the non-VR group.
Though VR is still a relatively new technology, tech giants such as Google (Google Cardboard), Facebook/Oculus VR (Oculus Rift), Sony Entertainment (Morpheus), Samsung (Gear VR), and Microsoft are already giving rise to a generation of lightweight and practical VR devices.
It’s happening and it’s happening fast. The next decade could very well see a revolution in the way humans interact with VR technology and the environment.
The objective of VR, vis-à-vis sustainability initiatives, is to make the relationship between human behaviour and the impact on the environment less abstract.
Given that environmental crises are becoming increasingly distant from our busy social lives, virtual reality may be one of the best shots we have at tackling and preventing environmental calamities, allowing for a more sustainable future.