Saving energy and the world with virtual reality

For most of us, saving energy is about saving money. We might have the environment in the back of our mind, but there’s a reason smart metres focus on how much money you’re spending rather than how much carbon dioxide you’re producing.

Now, though, research from Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) suggests that’s just because most of us can’t experience climate change. We hear stories about extreme weather, but we don’t see fumes from a car floating up and causing a hurricane.

The university has found that showing the direct cause and effect of climate change in virtual reality (VR) has a profound effect on how we think about our energy use.

Jeremy Bailenson, professor of communication and head of the VHIL said: “One of the greatest challenges to staving off irrevocable climate change is getting people to visualise how driving a gas-guzzling car or living in an energy-inefficient home is contributing to the problem.

“Virtual reality can give everyone, regardless of where they live, the kind of experience needed to generate the urgency required to prevent environmental calamity.”

That’s why the professor and his team put together a VR experience that shows the effects of ocean acidification, where excess carbon dioxide created by people is absorbed by the sea, increasing its acidity.

In the experience, you explore a reef full of life before becoming a bright pink coral. From your vantage point at the top of the reef, you see the next 80 years pass in just 13 minutes, meaning you can see how ocean acidification will change our seas by the end of this century.

The huge variety of colourful species die and vanish, being replaced by slimy algae and monotone Salema Porgy fish – a species that thrives in higher acidity. Eventually, the acidic water dissolves your coral’s skeleton and you disappear.

This might not sound hugely different to watching a documentary on climate change, but the results of Stanford University’s tests with its experience show powerful results.

Those who went into the virtual reef demonstrated more empathy for the environment than those who watched a movie about acidification. And when people were surveyed a week later, the change of attitude only remained for those in the VR group.

This isn’t the first time the VHIL has experimented with VR and climate change. They discovered that if a person cuts down a redwood tree in VR they’re more likely to conserve paper. And when they take a shower while watching their VR avatar eating coal equivalent to the energy being used, they were more likely to save water.

Compared to watching or reading about climate change, VR was more likely to change habits for the better. VR creates more empathy in people, which makes us more likely to act.

So, what do you think – would this sort of virtual experience make you change your habits for the better?