Coral Compass: Fighting Climate Change in Palau Leverages The Power of VR
Lonely Planet describes Palau as “a world underwater”, “a warm island welcome”, “a palm-fringed paradise” and “natural wonder”. The scenically magical Palau packs its extraordinary array of natural wonders into such a tiny island. However, what it didn’t mention is that Palau faces critical environmental issues. Like other small countries, Palau is powerless to curb global carbon dioxide emissions. Although scientists say global warming has magnified the impact of disasters, some legislators deny the impact of climate change or oppose restrictions on carbon emissions. What would be a more effective way to increase their awareness of climate change?
If a 2D picture or traditional documentary can’t raise enough awareness about the urgency of climate change, could a more immersive media – Virtual Reality, provide some more insights? Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University are researching to find the answer.
In mid-2016, VHI Lab designed and produced the educational experience – The Stanford Ocean Acidification experience in Ischia Italy. In this experience, they made it possible for people to watch the impact of ocean acidification visually, which produced the educational effects on the audience by giving them a first-hand experience.
After the success of Ocean Acidification Experience, Tobin Asher, Director of Coral Compass: Fighting to Climate Change in Palau, along with Elise Ogle and Jeremy Bailenson traveled to Palau, a small island nation in Micronesia, home to coral reefs. When Asher and his colleagues were there, they realized that the environmental issues in Palau were different from that in Ischia Italy. They decided to produce a documentary on how Palau is adapting to climate change to combat its effects on their reefs and economy.
With the help of Rob Dunbar, a marine scientist in Stanford, and Bob Richmond, a marine scientist at the University of Hawaii, Asher captured different reefs underwater to demonstrate the global warming effects in Palau.
Filming underwater could never be a simple task. Especially in 360/VR, you are forced to encounter much more uncertainties than what it is in 2D. Asher said, “I spent a lot of time to learn how master the 360/VR camera in the water .” Over the two-week shooting, the team encountered severe difficulties, such as distracting backgrounds, insufficient power charging, and challenging temporary memory. “You don’t know what you are filming when the camera is on. You have to go with your instinct….Every Time, I have to swim far away from the camera to get myself out of the shot, back and forth.”
Asher and his team probably weren’t the first one to reveal the issues of climate change, but they were one of the few VR filmmakers to show the human adaptation to fight against climate change. It showed both the practical way of making changes by local government and left the positive messages about human adaptation to the public.
“When people directly experience something, they see it in a different light”
Dr. Jan Lubchenco, 2013
Asher shared, “We showed the final work to the Palau national congress, it [Coral Compass] was very convincing to them since they would be able to see what happens to the reefs directly via VR.” Asher recorded a scene when snorkelers kicking on the sides of reefs in south Palau Arch, which shocked the Congress since they never saw it before. After that, they worked with scientists to change the local policy to protect the environmental ecosystem. Coral Compass: Fight The Climate Change in Palau also gained recognition and debuted at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
The Power of VR In Empathy Stimulation
Though some people might consider VR documentary is redundant and unnecessary, VR gives the audience a direct experience of the harsh reality, allows them to better empathize with the misfortuned human, unfortunate disasters and social cases on this planet. For example, Coral Compass elaborates the scenes of spectacular nature, evoking the sentimental feelings by immersing the audiences in the underwater scenes. Clouds Over Sidra, created by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk, brings the audiences to a twelve-year-old girl’s life in Jordan throughout the day and allow them to experience the dreadful consequences of the ongoing Syrian conflict, which successfully provokes the empathy.
VHI Lab has been dedicated to researching empathy in VR. They created one project called “Becoming Homeless” to study how VR affects people in empathy. According to their research, people who watched this in VR developed longer-lasting compassion toward the homeless compared to those who watched this in other media format, like text.
“Virtual reality simulations allow learners to experience the life of someone else by ‘walking a mile’ in his or her shoes. Through the capabilities of the technology, learners can see their appearance and behaviors reflected in a virtual mirror as someone who is different, and perceptually experience a scenario from the perspective of any party in a social interaction,” VHI Lab found.
How to take the full advantages of VR?
Although VR has its advantages in storytelling, such as giving a sense of immersion, it’s not the panacea in every case. Asher explained, “VR isn’t for everything. VR is really great for giving people direct experiences that they wouldn’t be able to have otherwise.” Admittedly, traditional 2D mediums are still the mainstream method to tell stories in many cases. But VR stimulates parts of the brain that other mediums cannot touch by providing the directly immerse the audiences into the story within the headset. Use VR in conjunction with other forms of media to find the best application in education, public policy, charity, and other potential areas could be the way to reach the maximum effects at this stage.
“Jeremy [founder of VHI Lab] always says that VR is creating things that we can’t do in the real world, but not for things we wouldn’t do in the real world. You won’t hurt someone in the real world so in VR as well. I think it’s great when people get to be super creative with technology, get to use all the ways they want to use it. That’s part of the exploration process. It’s about how to make this experience more influential on people,” said Asher.
VHI Lab will continue researching the best way of using VR. Unlike filmmakers, VHI Lab members are more academic-focused. Asher said, “Usually we create experiences to specifically answer research questions. There is lots of fun to film in 360, but it is still going to require more effort to prove whether it has a certain impact on the cause right now.”
VR is at its very initial stage. While there are still so many problems need to be solved, it would be beneficial for the human to better leverage its power by understanding how it is going to make an impact on various social causes.
About The Stanford Virtual Interaction Lab:
The Stanford Virtual Interaction Lab was found in 2003 by Professor Jeremy Bailenson, who studies the psychology of Virtual and Augmented Reality, in particular how virtual experiences lead to changes in perceptions of self and others The study is bearing the mission of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab is to understand the dynamics and implications of interactions among people in immersive virtual reality simulations (VR), and other forms of human digital representations in media, communication systems, and games.