A virtual reality simulation designed by a University of Oregon professor could help spur people to environmental action.
Participants in Project Shell don a virtual reality headset and take on the body of a loggerhead sea turtle, sporting flippers instead of arms. During a 15-minute immersive experience, they journey from a hatchling to an adult turtle, dodging hazards like ships and wayward fishing gear.
Participating in the simulation increased people’s empathy and concern for environmental issues, new research shows.
According to Daniel Pimentel, a professor in the UO’s School of Journalism and Communication who led the work:
“Embodiment of nonhuman bodies is a powerful tool that environmental storytellers can use. I hope that this experience can help raise awareness and hopefully engage the public in a way that trickles down to more support.”
He and his collaborator, Sri Kalyanaraman of the University of Florida, discuss their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.
Inspired by childhood trips to Disney World, Pimentel has long been interested in virtual reality as a communication tool. It can be difficult to get humans to empathize with mass animal casualty events. Most people don’t feel the emotional weight of a thousand far-away animals dying from warming oceans or pollution the same way they might mourn the death of a beloved pet.
Pimentel wanted to see whether he could make the threats faced by endangered wildlife feel more personal by having people experience the world from a sea turtle’s perspective.
His goal was to elicit a phenomenon called body transfer. Body transfer tricks the brain: People wearing the VR headset feel like sea turtle’s experiences are their own.
In the Project Shell simulation, participants begin by pecking their way out of an egg. Then, they grow up as a sea turtle, facing a variety of potentially deadly hazards. To make the experience even more immersive, participants sat in a special chair that oriented them to mimic a turtle’s paddling posture. And they wore a haptic backpack that sent vibrations to their spine when, for example, a boat zoomed by at close range in the simulation.
For more info, go to projectshell.org or check out the video below.
(Featured Image Credit: University of Oregon)