How VR can show us life, death, and the consequences we’re blind to

Here's how immersive virtual reality experiences can help us save animals, the planet and each other.

Danfung Dennis: So 'Melting Ice' is the first of four in a docuseries, 'This is Climate Change'. I had the privilege to travel to Greenland with Vice President Al Gore and see the landscape through his eyes. And it’s just this majestic, beautiful glacial world, but it’s collapsing in front of you.

So we would place our cameras, and I would actually time it to run underneath the glacier, and place the camera and run out before these giant blocks of ice came crashing down. And so the final experience is: you look up and you’re at the base of this glacier and you’re watching these enormous chunks of ice just crash down in front of you.

And it’s very different than watching it on a flat screen, it feels, you know, you’re watching it, it’s distant, it’s something a little more abstract. In VR that screen melts away, and you’re in it. You feel like those chunks of ice are coming for you. It sounds like it’s crashing right in front of you and you see this wave of water wash over below where your feet should be. And so it’s a very different experience when you’re feeling and hearing the Earth change at such a rapid pace.

We then followed the glacial melt down these wide, two-mile-wide rivers of silt, and it would concentrate down into this one narrow chasm, and I remember standing next to this chasm of water that was just—the incredible intensity of it was so powerful, and feeling very small and realizing just this Earth, that once we unleash the power that is latent within it it is going to be very difficult to reverse it.

And so it’s trying to capture these experiential moments of climate change and distill it down to these discrete experiences so that we can understand it like we were actually witnessing it, and take the science and translate it into something that we can embody, that we can feel, and even take a perspective of not even—it’s taking an impossible perspective.

And so we used a lot of drone shots to be able to lift you out of your normal everyday height and place you into another perspective to see the world changing as it is so rapidly right now.

There is the potential to overwhelm a viewer. This is a very intense medium and if you place people into intense situations they’re going to respond to it. And so it is this balance, I think, of finding experiences that match to someone’s own experience level.

And we know that if you put someone into an experience that’s too intense they’ll pull the headset off and have that feeling to flee. And so that isn’t very helpful.

We’re really trying to find a balance where you are guiding someone in, you’re leading them in and wanting to have them feel safe and secure so that they can explore this world.

So we found that having a warm, knowledgeable, and empathic guide or character in these VR experiences helps people sink into it, it helps them put down their defenses and say, “I’m going to be okay and I’m going to be open to this, and I’m going to try it.” And so that openness, I think, can be fostered.

There’s research that shows that the feeling of awe—which can be triggered through beautiful natural landscapes or music—it can dilate time to either feeling shorter or longer. And we find that consistently in VR, that time changes. People don’t know how long they’re in a VR experience. Sometimes twice as long or half the amount of time that they estimate than that it actually was. So there’s definitely some time dilation already happening in VR.

Awe also triggers feelings of openness, of being more receptive to new ideas, people, general experiences. And so I think it’s important to cultivate this openness when putting someone into an intense experience.

This medium is having to raise questions that take things to another level; can we have people really dive down into these hard problems and experience what it might be like to be in a famine-like condition, or in the inferno of a wildfire, or in the kill chute of a slaughterhouse? These are very intense things—life and death. But it's absolutely critical that we understand that they’re happening and that we’re all contributing to it. And if we no longer want to participate in either destructive or violent practices we have to know where to divest.

We need to know that if I purchase something in a grocery store, a piece of beef, that action will ripple through the supply chain and it will end up with someone with an electric prod forcing a cow into a kill chute where they’ll be bolted and their throat will be slit. And that is difficult to experience, but if we are participating in it, it’s necessary that we understand that our actions have consequences.

And so VR can link two different things that seem so separate, but connect them and make them something integral and connected, and connect it to us. And if it’s connected to us and our own actions, then, again, back to that reflection: How do I change? How do I take action?

I think there is this balance of not overwhelming people with intense experiences, cultivating that sense of awe and leading them into these important issues in an empathetic way.

So Condition One is a technology and content studio creating these powerful VR experiences. And we’re really interested in VR for good and impact, and how to use this medium to address some urgent issues that we’re facing. There are these potentials where we can start shifting people’s thinking and behavior in these really positive ways that help our environment, that help animals and that help our own health. And so using VR for this positive change, this positive impact is what we’re focused on.


What’s it like to not be you? Step into virtual reality and see. Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Danfung Dennis created the four-part docuseries This Is Climate Change in VR to capture what he calls "impossible perspectives". What's it like to be underneath a melting glacier the moment it crashes down? "This medium is having to raise questions that take things to another level; can we have people really dive down into these hard problems and experience what it might be like to be in a famine-like condition, or in the inferno of a wildfire, or in the kill chute of a slaughterhouse?" asks Dennis. Artistically, how do you invite people into these intense worlds without them removing their headsets and fleeing when things become too confronting? If filmmakers can find a way to balance intensity with awe, VR could reset humanity's empathy and perhaps kill apathy once and for all. "These are very intense things—life and death. But it's absolutely critical that we understand that they’re happening and that we’re all contributing to it. And if we no longer want to participate in either destructive or violent practices, we have to know where to divest," he says. Danfung Dennis is the founder of Condition One, a VR production and technology studio that has created VR experiences for National Geographic, The New York Times, Google, and Hulu.

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Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

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