Facing off climate change with virtual reality

Oct 27, 2017 - 4min read

Since Zuckerberg purchased Oculus Rift for $2 billion in 2014, virtual reality has become increasingly commonplace. A YouGov poll* from May 2017 estimates that 6% of the UK population owns a VR headset (doubled from the previous year). With lower-budget devices like the Google Cardboard also available, more and more of us occupy virtual reality. You might be asking, however, what on earth does virtual reality have to do with climate change?

“Virtual reality is the perfect tool to make climate change visceral.”


Well, at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab researchers are assessing how effectively virtual reality can affect changes in behaviour. Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the VHIL, told us, “Virtual reality is the perfect tool to make abstract concepts related to climate change feel visceral.”

Stanford has proven that virtual scenarios can inspire people to change their conduct in everyday life. Experiments have transformed attitudes to saving money, to exercising more regularly, to empathising more with homeless people – solely based on a fictional encounter.

Ocean Acidification

It seems that when someone can visualise the consequences of their actions, it engenders both a sense of culpability and a powerful surge of empathy. These two emotions have emerged as crucial aspects in education around sustainability.

Take one experiment in which subjects took a virtual shower and were then forced to virtually eat coal representing how much energy had been consumed to heat the water. Not only is this gimmick delightfully ironic, but afterwards subjects who ‘ate’ coal used less hot water than those given written indications of how much coal they used during their shower. 


In another, Bailenson observed a group who read a narrative about cutting down a tree; another who watched a perspective video from the shoulder of a lumberjack; and another who fell a tree in virtual reality – using a device to simulate the force and vibration of the chainsaw. In a staged interaction after the study, the virtual reality group used 20% less paper than participants in the other two conditions.

To utilise the full potential of this technology, the team chose to address a less familiar topic than deforestation or fossil fuels: ocean acidification. Working with leading marine scientists they designed scientifically accurate virtual field trips to a reef off the coast of a volcanic island in the bay of Naples. The way Jeremy sees it, “I can’t bring the world to the island of Ischia to see the future of all our oceans first-hand, but I can bring Ischia to the world.” 

“I can’t bring the world to the island of Ischia…but I can bring Ischia to the world.”


Lasting fifteen minutes, the simulation submerges the subject and propels them through the next century in Ischia. Colourful marine creatures die out and are replaced by those better adapted for high acidity waters. Learners experience phases of ocean acidification – from following a CO2 molecule to embodying different ocean species – some even disintegrate away themselves.

Compared to a group who watched a movie on the subject, not only did the virtual reality subjects demonstrate more empathy for the environment but their change of attitude endured beyond the experiment. Jeremy stresses that the content is being widely circulated as more people have access to virtual reality: “We released The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience on the content platforms Viveport and SteamVR – free of charge to anyone with a HTC Vive. I am delighted that we can share this field trip with the world.”


Their next project will involve electronically tagging fish in the kelp forests of Monterey Bay and using their movement data to create fish avatars. Anyone who owns a VR headset will be able to ‘adopt’ a fish. CGI avatars can elicit strong emotional responses – as all who cried when Dobby died will testify – while the ‘adoption’ element prolongs the compassion instinct.

The centrality of participation and empathy suggest a far more holistic approach to effective sustainability education in the future. Embracing new technology epitomises what can be achieved with creative approaches that work across disciplines. From virtual reality can come real change.  

Image credits: Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab

*YouGov study: VR: A Deeper Perspective study