Carnegie Mellon University

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VR Provides Reality Check on Climate Change and Future Well-Being

By Tae Wan Kim, Associate Professor of Business Ethics

Those of us living today are competing with future generations.

We use resources to live a comfortable life with little thought of future well-being. But tomorrow is already here in the form of our children. This is an issue of intergenerational justice.

We have to allocate resources in an ethical way. This isn’t easy. Sustainability is not a single tangible thing but multiple decisions woven together. We need to be well-informed about current and future conditions. Good decisions require personal engagement with information, but we can’t time travel (yet).

VR Is the Ultimate Empathy Machine

To be fair about resources in years to come, what we need is a reality check. The closest thing we have is virtual reality. I am on a team with CMU faculty Stuart Candy and Alex Davis, and graduate Jaehee Cho and other experts in future studies, computer science, decision science, and social and natural science with a focus on climate change. We're working on a set of VR scenarios that can bring us into the future.

VR is the ultimate empathy machine. It’s amazing. If an inferno is sweeping toward your house, you’re shaken. You feel panic and fear. With VR, you’re in the scene watching it unfold. Decision scientists predict extreme conditions like this will be common 40 years from now across much of the U.S. Our children, and their children and grandchildren will have to deal with water shortages and floods, reduced biodiversity, extreme weather patterns and temperatures, crop shortages, and more.

Experiencing Future Climate Impacts

The VR project will immerse viewers into some possible scenarios, including a raging fire in California, flooding at Mar-a-Lago Club in Miami, and a diner meal where the syrup costs extra.

We’ll be using the technology in a couple of ways. One is to reach as wide an audience as possible, bringing it to the public for anyone to experience. We hope to donate VR viewers to educational institutions. This is an expensive goal and we’re seeking support from foundations, research centers, and businesses.

We also plan to use augmented reality so that anyone with a phone or tablet can view them without the gear required for VR.

Examining VR's Impact on Climate Change Beliefs

On the research side, we’ll recruit viewers from all backgrounds, and we’ll interview them to see what effect the experience has had on their beliefs about climate change. We want to build awareness and increase the quality of conversation on the topic.

Our students are convinced we have to get serious about sustainability and take action soon. They and the generations to follow are the reason we are doing this.