One minute you're towering over the rainforest; the next you're walking through the urban slums of Gawair, and suddenly you're underwater in the Pacific Ocean. It's not magic, it's virtual reality. And these filmmakers bringing you all over the world via cutting edge technology are using it for more than just entertainment. From the plight of a burning kapok tree, to the experience of climate-displaced Bangladeshis, these filmmakers don't just want you to read about climate change, they want you to viscerally experience it.
Milica Zec and Winslow Porter, the New York-based VR directors and creative technologists from New Reality are taking the experience of VR to (virtually) new heights. Tree is their second VR film following last year's Giant, about two parents struggling to distract their young daughter by inventing a fantastical tale while trapped in an active war-zone.
Their new, 8-minute film Tree lets users experience life as a kapok tree from the moment it pierces through the earth to its death in a slash-and-burn farming operation.
"Deforestation is a bigger contributor to climate change than the entire transport industry combined," Zec emphasises, yet it's not common knowledge. In addition to forest degradation, it accounts for 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The main cause: agriculture.
"Cocoa, banana, coffee, palm oil… -- Nearly half of all of the things we buy in the grocery store contain palm oil. But consumers don't make a strong connection that the products they're purchasing every day actually come from regions of the world where the cultivation of these products are causing mass scale deforestation," Jungwon Kim from the Rainforest Alliance tells me.
Getting people to make this connection when it takes place in such far away locale is no easy feat. "We can't fly everyone to the rainforest to experience what it's like," she added "At the same time, a lot of scientists project that forests will be completely destroyed in 100 years. We need to take radical action right now and that is where Tree comes in.
The installation melds VR with a physical experience. Before users put their headsets on, they are asked to take a kapok seed and place it in the soil, symbolizing a user's avatar's creation.
"Once you put on the headsets, you realize that you are the seed," explains Zec. "We are dealing with something very real and so it was important for us to blend high technology with the earth."
Beyond the visuals and soundscape, the installation lets you smell the earth, feel the vibration of your trunk emerging from the ground, and then the flora and the heat and eventually the fire engulfing you as you burn.
"The experience is so strong that part of your brain acknowledges that you are somewhere else," says Porter. Some feel their palms get sweaty and even their body temperature rises, producing a psychosomatic response. "It's very trippy to be honest!"
"Tree brings an inspiring breathtaking moment of realization which can inspire something that's much deeper than any intellectual understanding of deforestation and biological diversity," Jungwon argued. "Bringing people's body in symbiosis with that of a tree that is being burnt down can catalyze change more than anything that's been done before,: she added.
Emotionally involving people like that is not only powerful, but needed. Science can win minds, but you really need art to win hearts.
At the end of the experience, participants are given back their kapok seed. "We didn't just want people to feel depressed," Zec said, "we wanted to show them that there is some sort of hope; they can actually do something about it."
So, with the seed the team gives the participants more information about their partner, the Rainforest Alliance. Through 140+ forest carbon projects around the world, the Rainforest Alliance has removed tons of greenhouse gases, equal to the annual emissions of 8,794,000 cars from the atmosphere. On the Tree website people can find out more about these issues and find practical ways to stop deforestation.
In fact, research has shown that using VR to engage and mobilize works. Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that VR is uniquely effective at changing conservation behavior, as shown in experiments about reducing paper use and hot water conservation. If a person has a VR experience of cutting down an old-growth redwood tree — feeling the vibration and sound of the chainsaw, the crash of the tree as it falls — that person is more likely to conserve paper.
It's a result that the team, who have witnessed powerful and moving reactions from users at Sundance and Tribeca, seem to confirm.
"Many have told us that they'll never look at trees in the same way, and that climate had never felt so personal and urgent," Zec tells me.
"Our ethos at Empathetic Media is to bridge technology and development in new ways to overall, mobilize and impact change," said Dan Archer, a New York-based comic and the VR director/producer of Life in Gawair. The film experience is a stark reminder that it's not just trees that are being uprooted. Humans also suffer the consequences, often leaving the most vulnerable at risk.
In partnership with the European Journalism Centre and Zeit Online, Life in Gawair walks you through an informal settlement on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh where thousands have migrated as a consequence of natural disasters.
Climate change has pushed thousands of Bangladeshis to flee from the lowland rural areas to the urban slum, in the search for better opportunities. With two-thirds of the country only 5 meters above sea level, Bangladesh's economy is more at risk to climate change than any other country in the world. Floods increasingly inundate homes, destroy farm production, close businesses, and shut down public infrastructure. Last year's erosion lead to an annual loss of about 10,000 hectares of land.
In an attempt to bring to light the human stories behind Bangladesh's struggle with climate change, the 360 VR film, accompanied by comics and text, tells the story of Rina Akter, a 34 year old mother of two.
Having left her village in the north western part of country, Rina now works as a seamstress for 60 euros a month; 7 days a week and lives in a single bedroom shack. This human experience of climate change, often neglected in mainstream climate change narratives, is the pillar of this project.
"It's easy to talk in these grandstanding terms of climate change but it's not until you hear one person's experience and you see the opportunities it denies people that you that climate change is happening right now to someone, albeit thousands of miles away from where you might be," Archer explained.
There are solutions, and similarly to Tree, the project puts a special emphasis on education through a collaboration with the Maria Christina Foundation, that financially supports children in the Dhaka slums.
"My research shows it works, especially when it comes to mobilizing people around climate change," Archer confirms.
As a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, he studied the metrics of empathy and VR and found a following an experiment in which 180 users watched short films on climate change, refugees and gender equality in sub-Saharan Africa, that there was a strong correlation between the level of immersion and individual's empathetic response.
"Five weeks after their VR experience, we got back in touch with them via email and most had taken action, by sharing the film for example," he confirmed.
Would you care more then?
The Crystal Reef was the project that truly spearheaded this VR advocacy movement.
Stanford's Ocean Acidification Experience used VR to help people understand in a uniquely personal way the long-term effects of climate change, which are often hard to intuitively grasp. It understood that it was hard to comprehend the concept of oceans getting more acidic. Unless you became the coral.
"What if you have a crystal ball and that crystal ball showed you exactly what the ocean and the world looked like in a world affected by climate change? Would you care more then?," the narrators begins.
The answer, it seems, is yes.