Can virtual reality save the planet?
On August 9, the UN released a terrible climate report, the first since 2018, warning of accelerating global warming and splattering code red alert headlines around the world. Recovering the Earth from the shore will require powerful collective action, the report’s authors wrote. But while the urgency of the message grows in the public sphere, scientists, journalists, artists and creators have so far struggled to communicate it effectively to a large number of world citizens. Some of them now trust their hopes in virtual reality (VR) to get the message across. In fact, a major body of research from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has shown that using virtual reality to change human behavior works. But how does it work and what types of virtual reality experiences can reach the most people most effectively and have the most impact? Where can these RV experiences be delivered to people? Is RV just a communication tool or can it be something else?
To answer these questions, we spoke with Vanessa Keith, an associate professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation, a registered architect, and the director of StudioTEKA, an award-winning Brooklyn-based design firm she founded in 2003. Keith is especially interested in design-oriented solutions to climate change and is currently building a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) and an open virtual world that develops concepts from his book “2100 A Dystopian Utopia: The City After Climate Change “. Published in 2017 by the late Michael Sorkin’s Terreform, the editorial arm of a nonprofit architecture and an urban think tank focused on eco-design, Keith’s book reimagines 14 cities around the world that use emerging technology to cope to the climate crisis. Keith expects to make a beta version of the game in a year that includes virtual representations of New York City and Moscow. A trailer, narrated by a guide named Violet, shows a city surrounded by fog, penumbra and neon, populated by flying taxis, bright highlands and dreamy gardens and parks. It’s reminiscent of Blade Runner’s iconic futuristic black, only with much more plant life. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kristen French: What drew you to work in virtual reality?
Vanessa Keith: Well, I’ve always been interested in new technologies and modes of representation. But in 2016 we partnered with the Glimpse group, a company of virtual and augmented reality platforms, which put part of our New York case study of the book on virtual reality. It was very fun. They made us walk down a simulated walkway 200 feet above the city and then asked everyone to jump down, and a lot of people couldn’t do it, even though they were really just in an office. I did it and it was amazing, the real thing it felt.
I’ve been called an ecofuturist, but really my whole goal is: how do I reach people? The RV is a powerful tool for this. For example, the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that if a person has VR experience cutting a tree (being the vibration of the chainsaw, he hears the tree fall), it is much more likely that this person saves paper. This is really interesting. The immersive nature of the medium affects all your senses and overwhelms the physical space around you. Now it’s almost a cliché, but it’s been called an empathy machine and for me that’s what really links it to the weather.
KF: How do you use virtual reality in your work right now?
VK: Our goal is to develop the concepts in my book, “2100,” in a massive online multiplayer role-playing game, an open virtual world where people operate avatars tasked with creating new ways to protect our cities from the threats of climate change. . Players in this multiverse complete point and experience searches. They can choose from several roles: explorer, creator, destroyer, thief. Explorers, for example, chase storms and help cities prepare for them. Creators design solutions to curb climate change, such as CO2 capture, and can they even interact with real inventors of the virtual world or learn technical skills, such as how can I fix or maintain a solar network? Destroyers recycle deceased or unsustainable elements of the city. We even have room for poachers, who steal things and undermine climate solutions, because there will be people who want to be nefarious. But if they get caught, they give up all their points.
KF: What kind of impact do you expect your virtual reality multiplayer game to have?
VK: One of the things I have constantly found in my research is that we are not lacking solutions to climate change, but lacking political will. At the same time, I think people who invent things and people who think of solutions are still in silos, in different fields in different countries, so I hope this is a place where people can connect and share. ideas. In addition, many messages about climate change are intensely negative. Maybe it doesn’t reach people because it’s so discouraging. Maybe we could get more people on board using fun, because it seems like fear doesn’t work. People just turn it off.
Now, what if a byproduct that enjoys this online multiplayer game is doing good deeds in the off-game world? I think we can do things with game-proof non-consumable (NFT) chips, which require much less energy to maintain than traditional NFTs. Just as we could generate money that would be used to fund jobs that fight climate change in the real world, such as planting trees, sequestering carbon, and supporting the efforts of NGOs working to combat the climate crisis. Some of the world’s environments are like digital artwork, right? There may be times in the world that someone can buy and accumulate points. Many of these games, especially MMORPGs, are beginning to have their own ecosystems.
It’s also important to us that we have a green server that feeds this and that we’re not washing the green, right? We really look forward to realizing our vision for a new type of ethically and socially conscious multiplayer game. We hope it expands Metaverse, greatly expanding its audience, uniting virtual and real worlds, and making a real difference in the future of our planet. Our vision of “2100” is continuous expansion, community building and lots of real world applications. “2100” will become a community meeting place for environmentally conscious people, while turning the game of a simple pastime into a transformative adventure.
KF: Does the immersive nature of the virtual world seem to make it a really useful tool not only for communicating the impacts of climate change, but for imagining the future of cities?
VK: Yes, because you have a one-on-one relationship with space. It’s an amazing tool. I’ve taught design for 15 years at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania and one of the hardest things to understand for beginning architecture students is that what you’re designing isn’t a toy. Half the struggle is to be able to imagine yourself as a tiny little human within this space. With headphones, you can immediately see their appearance at scale. It could help a lot with what I see as a crisis of imagination, the inability to imagine the world as anything other than what it is right now.
KF: Is there a virtual reality climate change project that really inspires you?
VK: Marshmallow Laser Feast is fantastic. They made two pieces. One is “In the Eyes of the Animal.” The other is “Ocean of Air.” Winslow Porter and Milica Zec at Stanford did “Tree,” which I already mentioned. I’ve been working with Tamiko Thiel, a Munich-based RV artist. He did something called “Fish Evolution” and “Unexpected Growth.” He does a lot of RV work. Participating media and condition did “This is climate change”. And the Yale University hackathon is fantastic. So I think a lot of people have started using virtual reality because of its persuasive power and its ability to project you into a different future.
KF: Where should RV experiences and games be delivered for maximum impact? Art museums? Schools? How do you get a large number of people to use them?
VK: I think RV needs to be available on multiple platforms because not everyone will be able to afford virtual reality headsets, so that means a phone, a laptop, or a desktop computer. We also want to offer ways in which people can form community outside of virtual reality experiences, probably on social media. Some of these virtual reality experiences could only live in the Oculus store, so it’s a game you download. The super amazing version could be in a museum or schools. Art exhibitions would allow us to try other types of technology, for example, such as haptics. So not only would you feel the vibration in your hands, but if you wear a vest, the vest will be in sync with the headphones so you can feel things in your body.
KF: Virtual reality has gone through so many attacks and is starting as a medium. Do you think the pandemic has increased its potential to attract a wide audience?
VK: The pandemic has accelerated the potential of virtual reality because we realized, hey, guess what? It really doesn’t matter where my body is and your body because most people just stay home. I had my first headphones during the pandemic and it was phenomenal. You can be in a small space, put on headphones and have infinite space. Suddenly you can be at the top of the mountain, looking into the distance. Plus, it’s no longer just for kids or players. People of all ages take part.
KF: What do you think should be the role of augmented reality (AR) in the fight against climate change?
VK: I think AR and VR have different uses. With AR, I imagine being able to walk, pick up the phone, and get metrics and information I didn’t have before. We could have a data sphere, for example, where I can use my phone to get a real-time indication of what my carbon footprint is or what is happening collectively in the city where I am. If you think about how we change, change is what becomes a habit you make every day. We get here a little at a time, incrementally, so that, on an individual level, we can all have an impact. I always say, start where you are. Every bit counts.
KF: Are there any other dream projects you have for virtual reality?
VK: This game is really my main focus right now, but I think one of the things I would really like to do is connect in a meaningful way with inventors and people who develop different tools to combat climate change, things which could be developed and tested in VR, in the context of the game.
I think virtual reality is a really fantastic way for people to imagine possible future alternatives because we don’t have a crisis of tools and technologies, we have a crisis of imagination. We have this kind of overwhelming feeling that everything is useless and that we are going to hell. And that just isn’t true.
We have created this world and we can transform it, but the first thing we need to do is imagine it differently.