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Meet the Scientists Using VR to Tackle Climate Change

'The Crystal Reef' is a virtual reality film by scientists-turned-filmmakers.
Filming divers off the coast of Monterey, CA. Courtesy of Cody Karutz.

In The Crystal Reef, a virtual reality experience illustrating the impact of carbon emissions on marine life, a voice muses, “What if you had a crystal ball, and that crystal ball showed you exactly what the oceans and the world would look like in a future affected by climate change?” Cody Karutz and his fellow researchers at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab are betting more people would care if they could experience is for themselves, and they are pioneering the use of VR to tackle conservation issues that otherwise may be out of sight—and therefore, out of mind.


“Not everybody lives near an ocean,” Karutz tells The Creators Project. “Not everybody gets to scuba dive, but if you can give people access to those experiences, then hopefully that will drastically change their conservation behaviors.” The team has used VR to visualize and quantify water consumption and paper waste, and research indicates those experiences significantly and lastingly influence test subjects.

A still from the interactive version of The Crystal Reef. Courtesy of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

The Crystal Reef premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Virtual Arcade and leverages two mediums unique to VR: immersive 360-degree video, and interactive first-person gaming. Early on, Karutz realized viewers craved engagement, so the lab created dual passive and interactive experiences, the only project at Tribeca to do so. Each takes viewers to the reefs of Ischia, Italy, where volcanic vents on the seafloor result in high levels of ocean acidification. Scientists warn that human-produced carbon dioxide will mirror this effect around the world, killing coral reefs and turning the sea into an “ocean moonscape.” The passive version takes viewers on a dive with marine scientist Dr. Fiorenza Micheli, but in the interactive version, viewers become researchers, using handheld controllers to collect samples and swim through a digital replica of the reef.

Filming in Ischia, Italy. Courtesy of Cody Karutz.

Exhibiting The Crystal Reef at Tribeca meant exposure as well as test subjects for the project. The lab collected a wealth of research from festivalgoers who opted-into answering survey questions to fuel future conservation efforts. “This is the first time I think anyone’s mass-collected data like this at a film festival,” Karutz says. “We collected 500 or 600 subjects-worth of data, which is huge for us. We would normally get about 100 in a lab.”


Ultimately, the goal is to reach as many people as possible with their message. “There’s not much being done in virtual reality on the science and conservation side right now, but we’ve been doing VR research for a long time, looking at social behaviors and new interactions that come out of this platform,” Karutz says. “It’s exciting for us, because VR is finally becoming affordable and that really shifts the way we think about using it as a platform. It’s something that could be used in the realm of education, at a museum, or an aquarium.”

Filming in Monterey, CA. Courtesy of Cody Karutz.

A still from the interactive version of The Crystal Reef. Courtesy of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

Karutz on location in Monterey, CA. Courtesy of Cody Karutz.

To learn more about The Crystal Reef and Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, click here and follow them on Twitter.


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