Image courtesy PWF

A new virtual reality experience offered by Pacific Whale Foundation provides an up-close look at how climate change is affecting our oceans. In the Stanford University film The Crystal Reef – a virtual reality experience illustrating the impact of carbon emissions on marine life – a narrator asks, “what if you had a crystal ball, and that crystal ball showed you exactly what the oceans and the world would look like in a future affected by climate change?” That crystal ball is now going to be available on Maui.

Researchers at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) believe that more people would care about climate change if they could experience this vision for themselves; they are pioneering the use of virtual reality to tackle conservation issues that otherwise may be out of sight, out of mind.

With an annual reach of 400,000 individuals and a successful track record of engaging millions to date in conservation advocacy work, Pacific Whale Foundation was approached by VHIL to support their goal of increasing public knowledge and awareness of the steep rise in CO2 emissions and its impacts on the ocean. This collaboration will be led by PWF education manager Robyn Ehrlich and Géraldine Fauville of Stanford University.

“With this project, we are investigating the affordances of Virtual Reality (VR) in education using the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience (SOAE), a VR piece developed by the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University,” said Géraldine Fauville, Ph.D. “SOAE is an educational experience that makes the impossible possible: seeing the ocean absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules, a coral reef degrade, and marine life disappear as the ocean acidifies.”

Through this experience developed with marine scientists from Hopkins Marine Station and Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, participants will learn about the causes and the consequences of ocean acidification, as well as actions that can be taken to reduce CO2 emissions. Members of the public will choose from a schedule of 15-minute time slots to experience an underwater reef exploration and brief survey – all done via VR headset. Data is automatically recorded and accessible only to the Stanford research team.

“We have worked closely with our Institutional Review Board (IRB) to ensure that our study complies with all privacy and ethics regulations,” said Fauville, “We do not collect any names, so the data is always anonymous.”

“This is a unique and exciting opportunity to engage our community in our mission to protect the ocean through science and advocacy and to inspire environmental stewardship,” said PWF executive director Kristie Wrigglesworth. “Our ecotours operate with the belief that experiencing whales, dolphins and other marine animals living wild in their natural habitat promotes awareness and understanding. Virtual reality has the potential to expand this experience to countless others that are out of reach from coastal environments.”

The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience (SOAE) will be offered at Pacific Whale Foundation’s Virtual Reality Classroom during specified hours beginning this month.

Suzanne Kayian is a Maui-based writer, public relations specialist and social media zealot. With more than 20 years experience, Suzanne has contributed to a variety of publications ranging from local independent...

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