Nature – A Virtual Reality Experience
In fiction, Virtual Reality often develops in concert with dystopic elements. Whether it’s lack of access to our environment or one another, the medium functions as a facsimile of something forever lost to our experience. But for all of its ups and downs, society does not yet exist in a dystopia and, despite the profound loss the natural world is going through, a great deal of its natural beauty is still available to us. In that context, VR creators are bringing us real and imagined pristine landscapes to promote conservation efforts, preserve visual and auditory records of natural landscapes that may be lost to the future, and broadcast pristine environments to people who cannot always reach them another way.
To date, the most famous example of VR for conservation comes from Obama’s presidential tour of Yosemite National Park in 360 video released last year. This year’s example, also recorded near Yosemite, may be Treehugger from the developers Marshmallow Laser Feast, which displays semi-transparent forest shown in time-lapsed 360 recording. The aggregated particles making up the trees’ features stream through this immersive experience, raising their arboreal pace to mammalian speeds so we might witness the forest breathe, radiating life. MLF have included a forest scent to Treehugger, adding texture to the experience and further replicating lived memory. Groups like Conservation International have made their motivations for using VR more explicit by exhibiting to users the locations that their donation would work to save and they take votes on the places to be captured next.
Some voice concern that immersive VR located in nature may have the unintended consequence of dis-incentivizing our efforts to rescue these places because their virtual form has captured, if not the whole experience of communing with nature, a merely satisfactory amount. But this hasn’t happened yet with the advent of film and pictures, so there’s little evidence that VR would supplant our love of nature. To put it pessimistically, this also takes for granted that these places can be saved. Such natural landscapes with very grim prospects for the future includes Antarctica and, perhaps, the recently wind-battered Caribbean. While it exists, we should record these areas in 360 video so future generations living in a relatively warm and barren world might know the world for what it was. And maybe curse their ancestors for messing it up so badly.
Beyond the places we strive to retain or archive for the future, the inclusion of nature in VR experience is overwhelmingly motivated by access. Sometime the reasons for bringing nature to people through VR are more tragic as with the Happy Place for Butterfly Children which help terminally ill children with respites of tranquil immersive experiences to act as a break from their daily suffering. The VR consuming public live mostly in poorly integrated urban centers and access to nature can be sporadic or even dangerous. AltspaceVR has long included their Campfire environment as a primary common area for users since open air environments lend themselves so easily to amicability towards others and a general lightness of being. Meanwhile, Rec Room has recently added Parklife to their repertoire which, after Disc Golf, is their first open-air experience; people are already using the park to play user-generated games and host private events like birthday parties. QuiVR is great archery experience in big part because users run up and down a beautiful, snowcapped canyon and The Climb VR’s biggest draw is the virtual view offered while hanging from a sheer cliff. While enjoyable in VR, these experiences (hanging out with strangers in an isolated forest, shooting guns in the park, firing arrows at Cerberus, hanging on a nook a kilometer above ground by your fingertips) would be harrowing in their natural setting. It can also be argued that leaving our concrete abodes for virgin landscapes is greatly damaging to them as each new visitors leaves that place a little worse off.
The discussion around environment is often about mitigating damage rather than returning it to a state ideal for humanity so, as a species, we’re being forced to save what we can. Though it may not perfectly capture the seeming miracle of nature, VR certainly has value over other media because it allows for a sense of visitation, it oftentimes presents the more socially responsible choice, and it ensures that our future selves aren’t left with nothing.