Virtual reality shines light on ocean acidification

Oct. 25, 2016, 12:02 a.m.

Software released last week by Stanford researchers allows anyone with virtual reality (VR) gear to witness ocean acidification firsthand. Developed by Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, the free simulation takes users on an educational “field trip” to discover the science behind rising acidity in our oceans — a less visible consequence of burning fossil fuels.

“Our number one goal was to try and create a virtual field trip in science and chemistry,” said Jeremy Bailenson, professor of communications and founding director of the lab. “You can have these field trips anytime and anywhere.”

The simulation first transports you to a scene of heavy traffic, where you follow carbon dioxide molecules from the street to the ocean. Sinking below the surface, you then wade through a healthy reef teeming with wildlife. The narrator instructs you to count the number of snails using your virtual hands. You count a dozen or so. Moments later, you are transported to a reef under elevated acidity, where you attempt the species count again. You find none. As the narrator explains, this is because the reef has grown too acidic to support shell-building organisms, which form an important part of the marine food chain.

Bailenson’s lab developed the software in collaboration with professor of education Roy Pea and Stanford marine biologist Fiorenza (Fio) Micheli and UC Santa Cruz marine biologist Kristy Kroeker. The project began when Bailenson caught wind of Micheli’s research.

“Fio introduced us to the nuance of ocean acidification,” Bailenson said. “We realized what a perfect use it would be for teaching marine science by allowing people to discover the causes, the effects and the process of ocean acidification by doing.”

The virtual reef is a replica of those that surround the Italian island of Ischia, one of Micheli’s research sites. In these rock reefs, underground volcanic vents emit carbon dioxide, elevating the reef’s acidity to levels that may become reality in the years to come.

“The reefs of Ischia provide a natural laboratory to study how ocean acidification is going to play out in the future,” Kroeker said. “It’s hard to wrap our heads around something that’s happening at such a big scale and over such long timeframes, but here you can see it. Without that visual, it’s really hard for people to understand.”

One of the main goals of the new software is to help people understand the causes and consequences of ocean acidification. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), about a quarter of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is dissolved into the ocean, where it forms carbonic acid. Animals that have adapted over millennia to pre-industrial levels of ocean acidity, such as oysters, clams and sea urchins, start to erode, affecting people who depend on ocean resources for their food and livelihood.

According to Kroeker, this is not a problem for tomorrow; ocean acidification is happening today.

“The ocean has already become more acidic, especially here in California,” Koeker said. “It’s happening, and it’s happening fast. And it will continue to get worse unless we deal with the carbon dioxide problem.”

VR technology enters the picture to be a potential solution. Studies from Bailenson’s lab show that VR experiences can impact behavior in the real world — such as increasing the amount of savings put into retirement and the time spent exercising. In another recent study, users participating in immersive simulations showed a greater sense of interconnection with nature and perception of environmental risks following the experience. The effect, called “embodied cognition,” describes how the environment affects cognitive processes.

“If individuals can be encouraged to take the perspective of nature and consider nature as a part of their self identities, they are likely to feel closer, empathic and more immersed with nature…” the researchers write.

Likewise, Bailenson’s simulation is designed to allow user interaction with a virtual environment.

Bailenson hopes that the ocean acidification simulation becomes a model for future VR field trips. For now, the Google Expedition Program is rolling out a lower-tech version of the software around the country. The game changer is that field trips once infeasible or impractical are now accessible to anyone with VR gear, according to Bailenson.

“At the touch of a button, you can go somewhere and do something,” Bailenson said. “Field trips are now available for people that don’t have the resources or the ability to go travel. This allows the field trip to come to them.”

The software is freely available online and currently runs on the HTC Vive.


Contact Benji Jones at jonesb ‘at’

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