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Can Stanford’s Deep Dive Into Virtual Reality Help Save the Oceans?

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Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson and fellow researchers at the school’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) have been exploring the effects of virtual reality on human behavior since the late 1990s. They’ve written countless papers documenting the fact that experiences in a virtual world—like exercising more, saving for retirement, using less paper, or showing more empathy—change behavior in the real one. They initially used expensive, custom-built hardware for their research; the kind of VR systems available today, like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, didn’t exist when they conducted most of their experiments.

But now that VR systems have gotten out of the lab and into the world, the team is beginning to let some of its work loose as well.

This week, for the first time, the researchers publicly released one of their potentially behavior-changing VR simulations for free download for the HTC Vive. The Ocean Acidification Experience is intended to teach users about the chemistry behind ocean acidification, as well as the problems it causes, and what they can do to help prevent it. To hit those marks, of course, the simulation has to be engaging enough to keep users involved.

Bailenson hopes he’s hit that sweet spot, and that the software will go viral. How would the group measure success? Says Bailenson: 

At the very least, people who become aware of it will now at least have heard of ocean acidification. Even better would be if all the 120,000 people who have the Vive hardware would download it and show it to friends. A home run for us would be if Google and Facebook and Oculus and Sony and all the other companies making VR hardware would include this with the hardware. Because if the tech companies embrace it fully, when VR gets into the classroom, our software will go with it.