The Current

Under the CGI? Scientists use virtual reality to get people to care more about oceans

As world leaders get set to discuss the climate crisis at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, some scientists are betting on virtual reality to make you feel more connected to the state of our seas.

Fostering empathy for the planet important in climate change fight: Jessica Blythe

A still from a video of a virtual reality experience that takes people under the sea, in an attempt to foster empathy for the ocean. ( Brock Environmental Sustainability Research Centre/Youtube)

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Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled "Our Changing Planet" to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

Canadian scientists have used virtual reality to take people under the seas, in an attempt to foster empathy for the oceans and make sure they aren't forgotten in the climate change fight.

The oceans are "very much ... out of sight and out of mind" for those not living along the coast, said Jessica Blythe, assistant professor at the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre at Brock University. 

That's compounded by the enormity of climate change, which can leave people disillusioned and withdrawn, she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"Scientists, I think, have rightly argued that figuring out how to foster empathy for the planet, but also for each other, is one of the most important things we can do."

  • Have questions about COP26 or climate science, policy or politics? Email us: Your input helps inform our coverage.

With a team from Brock University and UBC, Blythe helped to create underwater virtual worlds that gave people the experience of the ocean, and gauged how that affected their empathy towards it.

She told Galloway about the experiment, and its results. Here is part of their conversation.

Tell me about this experiment that you ran. What were you testing? 

I was really fortunate to be working with Colette Wabnitz from UBC and solutions on what the high seas might look like in the year 2050, so future scenarios for the high seas. And at the same time, I was working with Gary Pickering at Brock University, who is a psychologist who works on how to inspire pro-environmental behaviour [with the use of virtual reality]. So we wondered what if we combined future scenarios for the high seas with VR? And specifically, could we make people care more about this really remote, kind of magical, but elusive place.

Jessica Blythe is an assistant professor at the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre at Brock University.  (Submitted by Jessica Blythe)

How did you plug VR into the scenarios?

We were so fortunate to work with a company of Brock alumni, called Expert VR. And they created, based on a written narrative, these worlds that you put on a VR headset. 

You would be standing on the deck of a ship and you could look around … you could see fishing vessels, you could hear the sounds. And then you would transition to an underwater scenario. You can look up at the surface and see the sun coming through. There were fish swimming around you, really inspiring marine life.

[You could] sort of feel that environment, which most of us, you know 99 per cent of us, will never actually be able to visit. 

Did it feel real?

Yes, absolutely. When we were developing the scenarios and I would go over to test it, I would ask the VR team if I could just stay, because I loved being underwater so much.

I'm a scuba diver and it evokes that feeling just the same way it did to me when I was underwater in real life.

WATCH | The High Seas in 2050: Imagining a Better Future

So you run this experiment. What did you find? 

We found that it worked. We tested people before and after, asked them questions about how much they cared and were concerned about the oceans. And after they were immersed in those scenarios, their scores were much higher, significantly higher on empathy across all of the scenarios that we tried.

We tried both a good news, sort of optimistic scenario, and a pessimistic scenario. And we found both those actually increased empathy as well. 

What was the pessimistic scenario? 

In the pessimistic ones, global negotiations have broken down. Countries are not co-operating on governance of the high seas. We have not taken any action for climate. We see conflicts between nations, we see marine biodiversity plummeting. It's sort of the worst-case scenario based on what could happen if we follow business as usual. 

WATCH | The High Seas in 2050: A Plausible Dystopian Future

Were you surprised that this worked, that you were able to connect people to the oceans in a way that was not possible without something like virtual reality? 

Surprised and just thrilled, to be honest. We tested this primarily with undergraduate students at Brock University, many of whom have grown up in central Canada and haven't experienced the ocean.

The anecdotal things which people told us when they took off the headset were things like, "It was incredible. I felt like I was there. It was a really magical experience." And so we were thrilled to hear that, but also to find the results that it did actually shift and increase empathy. 

Do we know whether that empathy then translates into action? 

That's the most important question. So we did ask intent for action, so "After the experience, do you have more intention to perhaps get involved with the marine conservation organization or to take climate action in your life?" And those metrics did increase.

The trick, then, is trying to understand — and hopefully it's the start of the next phase of research — does intent for action actually translate into behavioural change. So that's something we hope to continue to do research on. 

What else do you want to study when it comes to virtual reality? 

One of the first things I'm hoping to do is take this research on the road. This was done just before COVID and I was hoping that we could test it with actual policymakers. Hopefully, we'll be able to do that over the next few months to see if people who are deciding about the future of the high seas right now, if they experience those scenarios, does it shift their empathy and does that have any impact on how we decide to govern the high seas.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alison Masemann. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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