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On thin ice: Using VR to take a good look at climate change

Opinion

An Adelaide-developed virtual reality system will take observers on a walk in Antarctica to give an experience of the impact of climate change beyond the usual images, explains James Calvert.

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When I was a child in the early 1990s, I went snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef.

What I saw filled me with awe and wonder, which almost 30 years later has remained a vivid memory.

Two years ago, I returned to the reef with my wife and sons to show them what had once amazed me. It was not as expected; the reef was dull and grey and the marine life was not as abundant.

While my experience doesn’t classify as a rigorous scientific study, seeing the reef change so drastically shifted my perspective on climate change.

Of course, I’d seen images of coral bleaching countless times before, but the act of being there on the reef was what I needed to shunt me to a different way of thinking.

The problem we face is not how to show people the visible effects of climate change. We already see it in documentaries, in the news and social media, and we may be motivated to take some action to reduce our carbon footprint after these viewing experiences.

But are we likely to revert back to our old ways once we feel we’ve made a small difference? Or, do we choose not to take action because we seem so distant from the problem; opting to believe we have more time to solve the issue?

With Virtual Reality (VR), we can remove this sense of distance and show exactly what is happening to our environment as a result of climate change – particularly in those very remote and distant locations where the impact is so visibly evident.

The Antarctic is one such region and one of the fastest warming regions on Earth. Without urgent action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll continue to feel the warming effects of our polar regions: rising sea levels, changes in climate, increasing severe weather events and loss of fish stocks, birds and marine mammals.

But what can we do to elicit that feeling of ‘being there’ and the power of ‘seeing it with our own eyes’, in order to move us towards genuine action? This is the realm of the latest VR techniques – VR that is high-end, motion-tracking, offering an explorable virtual world where you’re as close to the real thing than ever before.

In 2013, Adelaide-based polar adventurer and environmental scientist, Tim Jarvis AM, was trekking across the inhospitable interior of sub-Antarctic’s remote South Georgia Island, recreating the famous journey for survival of British polar explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his team.

Shackleton had crossed the glacier-stricken island in 1916, to find rescue at a nearby whaling station, and Tim was authentically recreating the journey some 100 years later.

While trekking across a wide valley inland of Fortuna Bay, Tim noticed something alarming. Instead of being where Shackleton was, 50 metres above the island surface on the craggy and perilous König glacier, he was stepping through knee-deep glacial meltwater.

The experience moved Tim so much that it sparked his next big venture, the 25zero Project, which highlights the rapid decline of the world’s glaciers, particularly those near the equator.

Hearing Tim speak of his experience is both moving and motivating. The problem is, there is only one Tim Jarvis. We can record Tim with video and share that around. But there are problems with that. We can’t make as good a connection with Tim and his words unless we are in the same space as him.

Enter VR, and a project helmed by Tim that allows audiences to experience first-hand the story of Shackleton, and witness the impacts of climate change in our polar regions.

Thin Ice VR could be the shunt we need to shift our view of climate change, by providing us with the sense of awe and wonder towards Earth’s amazing polar regions.

Thin Ice VR is a ground-breaking application of VR for documentary. It’s being produced here in Adelaide by Tim Jarvis and mixed reality studio Monkeystack, with myself as lead creative in collaboration with various industry partners and institutions.

An important aspect of the project is design-based research into Virtual Reality, which is being led out of Torrens University. Researchers at Torrens are uncovering innovative ways to immerse people in VR that leads to a deeper connection with the stories they’re experiencing.

Rather than simply present 360-degree footage to audiences, the Thin Ice VR team is recreating Antarctic locations in stunningly realistic 3D, using multiple capture techniques to turn images into engaging, explorable virtual environments. This will provide a deeper level of immersion, where you’re able to walk across the Antarctic locations, even pick up objects, as if you’re really there.

Virtual representations of Shackleton and Jarvis will guide you through the experience, giving first-hand accounts of the events that transpired during the historic Shackleton journey, while witnessing the impacts of climate change since that time.

What makes this project unique is the application of cutting-edge technology in capturing and portraying the people and places in Virtual Reality. The Thin Ice VR team travelled to some of the most remote and hard-to-reach locations in the Antarctic region, in a bid to create a deeply immersive and visually accurate documentary experience.

VR mainstays of 360-degree video and aerial drone footage were used to capture natural scenes and wildlife for some of our supporting scenes. However, in a world first of telling the Shackleton and Jarvis story, the production team is employing photogrammetry and volumetric motion capture to fully exploit the capabilities of the modern VR headset.

Photogrammetry is a technique where a series of images captured of an object or location is processed and converted into a realistic 3D model. A specific location on South Georgia Island, for example, is ‘scanned’ with digital cameras and then rebuilt at a 1:1 scale so that VR users can freely walk around the location. When combined with audio captured on location, the result is as close an experience as you’ll get without actually travelling there.

The potential is for audiences to feel as though they’re in the Antarctic, to walk across it and see it with their own eyes. These are the real star qualities of modern immersive VR systems. While high-end VR is already available for consumers, schools and museums, it is relatively expensive and cumbersome. However, it won’t be long before the technology is even more accessible.

I strongly believe high-end VR can play a significant role in motivating populations to take on large-scale shifts in behaviour to collectively address global issues, such as climate change.

Anyone interested in following or contributing to the Thin Ice VR project can find out more at thinicevr.com.

James Calvert is Media Design Lecturer at Torrens University.

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