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Stanford VR Project Takes Students to Oceans of the Future

A new, free virtual reality program allows users to explore what happens as climate change kills off coral reefs. The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience is a free science education tool that takes students to the bottom of the sea and then fast-forwards their experience to the end of this century, when, as scientists predict, many coral reefs are expected to corrode through ocean acidification. By putting the experience in VR, the collaborators say they are hoping to change people's behavior in the real world.

The project came out of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which created a related 360-degree video project that also examines the problem of global warming and its impact on the ocean's life forms. But it's the VR version that allows the viewer to deep-sea dive and collect samples off of the ocean floor.

The simulation places the viewer into heavy traffic, where he or she can follow carbon dioxide molecules as they float from car tailpipes to the sea, where they're absorbed. Then the viewer steps into the waves and moves around coral as it loses its vitality and displays the effects of increasingly acidic water on marine life. A narrator explains what's happening as the story unfolds and encourages the viewer to undertake specific actions, such as a species count.

"You're not watching something, you're doing it," said Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the lab and a communications professor. "You learn by doing. These are magic, teachable moments."

The lab created the software in partnership with marine biologists Fiorenza Micheli from Stanford and Kristy Kroeker, formerly at Stanford and now at the University of California, Santa Cruz, as well as Roy Pea, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Education. The development process took two years to recreate a virtual replica of an actual rocky reef around the Italian island of Ischia, where underground volcanic vents have been spewing carbon dioxide at the reef. The data collected from that site has allowed researchers to measure the impact on marine life and to extrapolate what effect people's increasing fossil fuel use will have in decades to come.

A related video, "The Crystal Reef," filmed in 360 degrees and developed as part of a master's degree project by a lab member, premiered during the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. There, people could watch the film on VR headgear. "We had a line of dozens of people for 11 hours a day, six days straight," said Bailenson, in a Stanford article about the project.

The VR project has also gone to Washington, where lawmakers and staffers tried it out during a Capitol Hill event organized by non-profit Ocean Conservancy. Among them was Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. "This simulation shows in rich detail the damage carbon pollution inflicts on our oceans," said Whitehouse after his viewing. "I appreciate the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience for calling attention to the peril our oceans face and what we must do to protect them."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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