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The ways in which our climate is changing—many of them for the worse—are unfathomable to even the most furtive imaginations, but one group of scientists is using virtual reality (VR) to educate those who stand to inherit an environment that will look very different to that of today. The team at Stanford University’s Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute, led by Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, the Thomas More Storke Professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford, and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, has designed a VR field trip to explore a marine environment in the grip of acidification.

The 15-minute VR field trip enabled users to move through a coral reef below the ocean’s surface. The mixed methods research project used qualitative methods to understand how VR can be used in a classroom, as well as quantitative data mining tools to uncover new connections between the rich data afforded by immersive VR and other, more established learning metrics.

The VR field trip enabled users to experience ocean acidification. Users became a pink coral among the dark purple sea urchins, sea bream and sea snails. By the end of the simulation, which fast-forwards to what the reef will look like at the end of this century, those species have disappeared and been replaced by slimy green algae and the silver Salema Porgy fish—a species that will likely thrive in the higher acidity. Eventually, the user’s coral skeleton disintegrates and disappears; the rocky reef ecosystem has been destroyed. “If ocean acidification continues, ecosystems like your rocky reef, a world that was once full of biological diversity, will become a world of weeds,” the narrator says.

According to the Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute, the results of the pilot study are preliminary, “but powerful”.

“Subjects in the virtual reality group demonstrated more empathy for the environment than those who watched a movie about acidification. When surveyed a week later, a change of attitude endured only for those in the virtual reality group.”

Find out more about the project and what it’s like to experience a changing marine environment in this video: