February 25, 2024

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Australia: VR Enhances Environmental Empathy and Exercise Engagement

Image Credits: Murdoch University, Press Release

In a research initiative co-led by environmental psychologist Dr Sonja Geiger, at Murdoch University, the quest for strategies to galvanise collective action against climate change has taken an unexpected turn toward the realm of virtual reality (VR) technology. Dr Geiger’s research has unveiled an unconventional ally in the fight against the climate crisis – the potential of VR to enhance human empathy towards the environment, ultimately influencing more sustainable behaviour.

In this study, participants were immersed in a transformative VR experience where they assumed the perspective of a tree, beginning their journey as a seed embedded in the soil and evolving into a towering, verdant tree in the heart of an expansive forest.

Throughout this simulation, participants could perceive wildlife, manipulate their virtual limbs now transformed into branches, and survey the natural surroundings. The climax of the experience depicted the forest succumbing to flames, with the tree embodying the participants being consumed by fire, along with the entire ecosystem.

Following this, participants reported a profound sense of connectedness and a perceptible shift in their perspective, having assumed the tree’s point of view. The VR experience prompted contemplation on the intricate relationship between humanity and nature, fostering important emotional shifts towards a greater collective empathy for the natural world.

Dr. Geiger emphasised the significance of these emotional shifts in cultivating a heightened societal awareness of environmental issues. She expressed a desire to contribute to innovative educational approaches for sustainable development that render the decline of nature more palpable and emotionally resonant. The aim is to trigger changes in opinions and behaviours, particularly in critical areas like deforestation and beyond.

The potential impact of this technology extends beyond individual experiences. Dr. Geiger proposed exposing individuals in influential roles within industries with significant climate impacts, such as mining company managers, to this VR experience. The goal is to raise awareness about the tangible environmental repercussions of their operations and stimulate a greater sense of responsibility.

While further research is slated to explore whether this heightened connectedness to nature can lead to sustained pro-environmental behaviours, Dr Geiger highlighted the compelling reactions from participants, suggesting that these findings could contribute valuable psychological insights into systemic change. The marriage of virtual reality and environmental psychology opens up new avenues for fostering a collective commitment to combatting climate change through technology-driven experiences that resonate on an emotional level.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of South Australia (UniSA) unveiled findings that may not only revolutionise exercise engagement but also contribute to addressing chronic pain management, OpenGov Asia reported earlier.

Led by PhD candidate Erin MacIntyre and senior researcher Assoc Prof Tasha Stanton, their study introduces an innovative approach that integrates virtual reality (VR) technology with cycling, aiming to enhance the overall exercise experience.

This research used a unique stationary bike system equipped with a head-mounted VR display, demonstrating a remarkable 20% increase in exercise enjoyment and a 15% longer exercise duration when participants engaged in virtual reality-enhanced cycling.

By leveraging the power of virtual reality in the realms of environmental psychology and exercise engagement, researchers are paving the way for transformative approaches that tap into technology to foster empathy for nature and improve exercise adherence—an intersection of innovation with the potential to impact both individual well-being and broader societal challenges.


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