A study published in September 2016 by a collaboration of American scientists from the universities of Stanford, Connecticut and Georgia, demonstrates that virtual reality can be used to help people feel a part of, and better understand, the natural world by enabling them to experience the sensory perspectives and bodily movements of other life forms.
The 54 participants selected and involved in the immersive experience, in which their head movements were tracked in a three-dimensional world, were enabled to see the world of the future through the eyes of a cow or a coral reef.
As cows, the participants wearing virtual reality headsets were left to walk around a virtual pasture on all fours, being jabbed by a cattle prod and told they were going to be loaded onto a truck. Those as a coral reef saw their own body ‘corrode’ and the ocean around them decay as a result of ocean acidification.
By immersing themselves in the experiences of another species rather than simply watching the scenes on a screen, both of which were part of the study, the participants reported having enhanced feelings of interconnectedness and involvement with nature.
Importantly, the study indicates that VR can be used to remind people that humans are connected to, and part of, nature. Building on previous works using virtual reality to alter perspectives and enhance empathy, the study focuses on human-nature interactions to promote levels of personal involvement with nature.
Can VR help us to respond with more empathy and agency to challenges such as a growing global population, increasing levels of meat consumption, unprecedented levels of pollution and rising sea temperatures?
This seems to be a possibility. Immersive experiences like this one exemplify “the really solid causal relationships” between our actions and their consequences further down the line, says co-author of the study Grace Ahn, an assistant professor of advertising at the University of Georgia.
Those who partook in seeing the world through the eyes of another species, for example, found that they were more likely to feel closer and more immersed with nature, resulting in pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours for at least a week after participating.
Accordingly, this pioneering study is an interesting and engaging way of making the distant consequences of damaging consumption real. Climate change, its causes and effects, is usually presented as a distant (both spatially and temporally) reality, where humans and nature are portrayed as separate entities. Immersive experiences like this one, challenge that separation and prompt greater perceptions of imminence of environmental risk and connection with nature.
With an increasing VR market set to be worth $5.2 billion by 2018, the future task of this study and others like it will be to encourage individuals to take the perspective of nature and consider nature as part of their self-identities.
This potential for enhanced empathy and understanding however, comes with its own set of challenges. Primarily, the current market is dominated by VR companies who see the gaming community as keen targets with the most amount of profit potential. Consequently, it will be interesting to see how empathetic experiences focused towards a wider audience will break through this market and bring with it innovative experiences to facilitate learning and possible behavioural change.