It’s hard to miss the buzz around virtual reality. The technology is constantly making headlines – from the time it emerged as a contender to help reconstruct Notre Dame’s famed cathedral, to when the NCAA utilized it to identify head injuries and concussions.

Last year, National Geographic’s Washington D.C. museum opened the doors of its VR theater experience, the city’s first. The opening marked a milestone in VR’s growing influence on how we tell stories about our changing planet. While the technology itself has been around for decades (the first headset was invented in 1968 by computer scientist Ivan Sutherland and his student, Bob Sproull), it is now emerging as a tool to solve today’s biggest challenges and, increasingly, as a vehicle for environmental storytelling.

To further explore this trend, we invited a multitude of storytellers to participate in our inaugural Climate Story Lab, hosted in partnership with Doc Society. Here, we heard from two exciting new VR projects: Breathe, a mixed-reality application that uses body movement and breath to immerse participants in the story of air in our environment; and Swampscapes, a journey to remote regions of the Everglades. 

Inspired by the potential of these stories, we’ve gathered a handful of insights on how VR can enhance the efforts of environmental storytellers and advance the climate movement.

Building empathy for our environment through a first-person experience

We all know that seeing is believing. VR takes this principle a bit further: experiencing is believing. Audience members become protagonists, deciding where to look and how to interact with unfamiliar, at-risk environments.

A great example of VR’s potent effect on our perspective is the VR film Tree, made in partnership with the Rainforest Alliance. Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 502,000 square miles of forest, but startling stats alone don’t always move people to action. The team behind Tree found that audiences needed to feel personally connected with one of these at-risk trees. So Tree takes viewers on the journey of becoming a Kapok tree, from seedling on the rainforest floor to maturity high in tropical skies, incorporating movement and interactivity for a more intimate experience.

“We made our users the center of the Tree experience; each one conducts their own story, so the piece becomes totally unique to each person. The room-scale element of Vive [technology] was perfect for us in that regard. Room-scale allows people to move their body and arms as the tree, exploring the environment and truly making it their own.”Milica Zec, co-creator of Tree

The film was paired with a simple call to action: donate to the Rainforest Alliance to help protect these tree canopies. To date, over 2,000 participants have experienced Tree and engaged in Rainforest Alliance’s mission of “taking action to keep forests standing.”

Challenging skeptics by putting them in someone else’s shoes

Disclaimer: This clip contains profanity and adult content.

Reaching audiences who have doubts about climate change is critical for growing the environmental movement. VR can transport new audiences into someone else’s shoes, helping to challenge their preconceived notions and suspend their disbelief.

Like climate change, the issue of reproductive rights has been one of the most polarizing debates of our time, especially around the funding of Planned Parenthood. Recently, the organization produced a 360 VR film called Across the Line, which captures the tough reality of a patient walking up to one of their clinics. The film places viewers in the middle of a simulation where protestors scream profanities as the viewer moves toward the entrance. The film elicited an emotional response at the 2018 VR Summit for Change, where even conservatives took notice, including an anti-choice lawyer who left the theater in anger over how women are treated when seeking treatment. To quantify the technology’s effectiveness, Planned Parenthood conducted a test group survey of a majority male audience.

“The experience was linked to attitude changes in people who reported having moderate or slightly conservative political views. After the experience, many of those people shifted their views to believing that protesters should not share anti-abortion views [directly] outside clinics, and some even came to ‘strongly agree’ with the statement that they would support a woman who had an abortion by driving her to an appointment, ‘even if I didn’t agree with her decision.’”Salon

Transforming film subjects into powerful “in-person” narrators

Who is telling the story can be just as important as the story itself. In a recent study on short-form journalism and effective narration, Tow Center for Digital Journalism concluded that, “Trust in the narrator is essential to building empathy, inspiring immersion, and heightening engagement in the narrative. This is best achieved by ensuring that the narrator maintain a consistently visible presence on-screen.”

VR enhances the role of narration over traditional storytelling by placing film subjects alongside audience members in a digital landscape, which can build deeper trust from a perceived shared experience.

In National Geographic’s VR theater series SPACES, photographer Aaron Huey allowed Bears Ears National Park’s indigenous people to tell their own stories, guiding audience members as they explored precious off-limits places through their headsets. Viewers joined Brian Monongye, a Hopi artist, farmer, and community leader, at an ancestral Pueblo village on the San Juan River and listened to the flute serenade of Marlon Magdalena, an educator and musician, as they entered a sacred Kiva site. Through personal stories and a shared exploration of the park’s sacred spaces, indigenous people connected directly with audiences about the cultural importance of the land and the urgency of its protection.

Bringing science to life in the classroom

We’ve seen the power of film in the classroom through nearly 1,000 school screenings of Chasing Coral, but new technology can cultivate a student’s curiosity even further. There is growing evidence that new forms of media can excite students about learning topics like science and climate change. Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab took a look at the engagement levels of educational VR compared to other media and found that characters in virtual reality may have more influence on young children than characters on TV or computers.

In an effort to engage students around our oceans in a fresh way, we created a Chasing Coral VR experience and partnered with The Ocean Agency to make their VR Google Expeditions available in schools around the world. Some educators got creative, like Anthony Wasley, a teacher at West Hartford High School who hosted an Ocean Night with his students. The class set up a dedicated “VR Dive Room” and invited the local community to share what they learned about climate change. 

Maximizing your investment by targeting influential audiences 

Virtual reality can be a tremendous environmental storytelling tool. It can also be difficult to distribute widely and costly to produce. VR filmmakers are accounting for these limitations by getting their work in front of important decision-makers who often have the power to make an outsized impact.

Artist and filmmaker Lynette Wallworth has exhibited her multi-sensory projects “Collisions” and  “Awavena” at global convenings with high-level leaders, helping to spark critical dialogue at moments that matter. In 2016, following its premiere at the World Economic Forum, “Collisions” was screened at the United Nations First Committee on Disarmament meeting in New York. The following year, it was presented at the UN Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty meetings in Vienna as well as for the U.S. Department of State. Its screening at the Australian Parliament was followed by a historic vote in favor of a new resolution to ban nuclear weapons.

IN CLOSING

While there can be limitations to its reach, VR has the unique ability to connect with new audiences, foster empathy, and cultivate a deep and influential connection with viewers. Storytellers developing linear projects should consider whether a VR component might offer a valuable complement to their screenings and outreach efforts. Likewise, environmental advocacy groups can look to the medium for new ways to attract and engage their constituents. After all, when it comes to the urgency of our climate crisis, sometimes just seeing isn’t enough.

“VR is a portal to place, it’s a portal to intimacy, it’s a portal to connection.” – Liz Miller, Swampscapes

We’re always looking to connect with filmmakers pushing the envelope on new forms of storytelling and impact. Let us know about your environmental VR project or a VR case study to include by sending us a message here!