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.
Since 2006, Danfung Dennis has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His still photographs have been published in Newsweek, TIME, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Le Figaro Magazine, Financial Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Der Spiegel, and The Wall Street Journal.
PBS's Frontline opened its 2009 fall feature program, 'Obama's War' using Danfung Dennis' footage. The immersive nature of the footage prompted a flurry of comment and inquiry from the Pentagon, the White House, veterans groups, viewers and was nominated for a 2010 Emmy Award.
In 2010, Danfung Dennis won the Bayeux-Calvados Award For War Correspondents, was named one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine and one of the 30 New and Emerging Photographers by PDN Magazine.
Danfung Dennis directed and filmed his first feature-length documentary on the war in Afghanistan, Hell and Back Again, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and won both the World Cinema Jury Award and the World Cinema Cinematography Award. The film was nominated for a 2012 Academy Award for best feature documentary.
Danfung Dennis is currently the CEO and Founder of Condition One, a video software company that combines advanced 3D graphics with high-resolution video to create powerful immersive video applications. Condition One licenses its software to brands, agencies, and media companies to power immersive video experiences. The company is funded by TechStars and angel investors Mark Cuban and George Kliavkoff among others.
His background is in Applied Economics and Business Management and consulting small and medium-sized enterprises in Uganda and South Africa.
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.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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