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Mark Zuckerberg, VR headset

Could VR really help save the planet? An expert weighs in

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says that improving virtual reality tech could help fight the climate crisis, but there are some caveats

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that the growth of virtual reality technology could help save the planet, providing part of a much-needed solution to the climate crisis. Specifically, the Facebook founder and CEO says (in a March 8 interview with the Information) that future improvements to VR headsets will make us feel like we can “teleport around” and visit people without ever having to leave our own home, cutting down on harmful emissions.

“Obviously, there are going to keep on being cars and planes and all that,” he says. “But the more that we can teleport around, not only are we personally eliminating commutes and stuff that’s kind of a drag for us individually, but I think that’s better for society and for the planet overall, too.”

The claim shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The same week, it was also reported that almost 20 per cent of Facebook employees are working on augmented reality and virtual reality devices, suggesting that Zuckerberg is serious about his ambitions for the technology.

However, there are some caveats to take into consideration when it comes to VR’s impact on the climate crisis, says Don Balanzat, an expert on the technology, working in the physics department at Arizona State University. Virtual reality does have “some potential” to impact greenhouse gas emission numbers, Balanzat tells Dazed. “The clear benefit is that there is no reason to travel by plane or car if VR gives you all of the affordances of an in-person meeting.”

This experience will also improve with technology that’s already in the works, such as higher fidelity screens, better haptics (touch and force feedback), full-body tracking, and even “smell” engines. “The capabilities of replicating human stimuli and human representation in these virtual worlds are always getting better. We can definitely expect these capabilities to continue making strides in the near and far future.”

“But, like any tech solution to the climate change problem, there is a lot of nuance that can affect how much it can help,” he notes. We have to consider how headsets are manufactured, and whether their materials are recyclable, as well as where the energy is coming from as the technology scales up — behind transportation, electricity production is the second-largest producer of human-created greenhouse gases in the US.

There’s also the question of the impact on our health and wellbeing if a shift toward a Matrix-esque virtual world were to take place. This has become an all-too-familiar topic during the coronavirus pandemic (a period that has seen VR headset sales skyrocket as people find themselves stuck inside on an unprecedented scale). “Without a doubt COVID has changed people’s perceptions on what virtual meetings should be like,” Balanzat says. “The way we’re doing it now clearly doesn’t cut it. A lot of the negative perceptions of virtual work stem from the inability to recreate spatial, social environments.” 

VR offers the ability to convey body language or to perceive depth and space around you, he adds, and to freely create, share, and collaborate in ways that you can’t do via webcam. However, it’s still imperfect, and is likely to stay that way for some time. “The real world has many rich and unique experiences that are far beyond VR’s ability to replicate, now and in the near future.”

As the world slowly emerges from coronavirus lockdowns, then, in-person work doesn’t look like it’s under too much threat just yet. Right now, “VR is more like an augmentation to face-to-face jobs”: it can help improve productivity, for example, or help perform work in dangerous or inconvenient locations (e.g. space). In other cases, such as travel for leisure, VR can be used to showcase a destination before you make concrete plans, but won’t cut it as a stand-in for the real thing.

So, in a nutshell, VR is not a simple, near-future solution to the climate crisis. However, it could help to change public perceptions and push for all-important legislative change. “If VR becomes mainstream, the climate change situation could be represented in entirely new ways,” Balanzat explains. “VR could be used to show people the evolution of an area as the climate gets worse in an immersive way.”

Research by Stanford’s Human Interaction Lab has already shown that people tend to conserve paper more after viscerally experiencing a tree being cut down. Meanwhile, projects such as Greenland Melting— which shows 360° footage of melting glaciers, investigated by NASA scientists — help to visualise the wider effects of global warming. 

“The true heart of the issue is a lack of scientific literacy in the general public. VR can help protect the planet by enabling entirely new ways of teaching and demonstrating specific scientific concepts.”