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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.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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