By Saskia Comess, David Paolella, and Andrew Feierman

While more than 75 percent of Americans say that climate change will affect future generations, less than 50 percent believe it will affect them personally. This startling statistic, shared by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, framed The Reality of Global Climate Change: A Mixed Reality Hackathon. Despite the wealth of new research showing that climate change is already having widespread impact, effective communication of risk remains one of the central obstacles to accelerating climate action. The hackathon brought together researchers, programmers, and artists at Yale to explore how virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies can more effectively communicate the threat of climate change.

Data-Driven Lab joined the Yale Center for Collaborative Arts & Media, Yale Center for Business and the Environment, Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, Center for Ecosystems in Architecture at Yale, Information Technology Services, and TSAI Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale to help organize this second annual Climate VR hack. A Data-Driven team also participated in the hackathon, held over the weekend of February 8-9, 2019. Sponsors including, HP, ESRI, Magic Leap, The Nature Conservancy Connecticut, and SphereGen shared tools, demos, helped judge the final entries, and mentored teams throughout the weekend.  

VR technology creates new opportunities to raise awareness of climate change impacts by tackling two of the biggest challenges of climate change communication: scale and proximity. Because emissions of greenhouse gases today will affect the climate long into the future, the temporal scale of climate change can be difficult for the public to comprehend. VR transports individuals into a future reality where long-term environmental changes can be experienced first-hand. Immersing people in the stark reality of a warmer world yet to come may encourage them to demand policy change today.

Climate change impacts also vary substantially across the world. The people who may have the least power to advance change are often the first to feel the harmful effects of global warming. VR can create an “empathetic experience,” making the effects of climate change highly personal. VR experiences offer a chance to expand people’s view of the world and unify them around a common global story of environmental change. While data on emissions and impacts is abundant, making the data compelling and relevant to people’s everyday lives is a challenge that VR is uniquely suited to address. Effective VR makes the invisible causes of climate change visible, the distant effects immediate, and the nebulous harms highly personal.

Research Assistant David Paolella learns to fly in virtual reality.

Participants in the Yale hackathon were excited to explore the VR design process and rapidly prototype cutting-edge climate change communication tools. The Data-Driven Yale team (Prerna Bhat, TC Chakraborty, Britta Dosch, Andrew Feierman, Nadia Irwanto, David Paolella, Zhi Yi Yeo) chose to build a game that immersed players in a coastal city impacted by sea level rise. In the game, a player could transform the urban environment in ways that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. While exploring the flooded city, taking actions such as replacing cars with bicycles, building solar farms in the place of power plants, or planting trees would cause the water level to recede.

The Data-Driven team hard at work preparing for the evening showcase.

The Data-Driven Team was impressed by the ease with which they could generate a realistic 3D urban environment using ESRI’s CityEngine tool and add simple game mechanics with the Unity development platform. In only a few hours, the team was able to build a functional and immersive VR game. This experience at the hackathon convinced the team-members of the potential of VR to create immersive experiences that can build empathy and understanding around climate impacts and solutions.

The Data-Driven team shares images from their virtual reality game.

Winning projects were selected in three categories. The overall winner was “Hotline”, a VR experience where participants stopped the spread of wildfires. The “Hotline” team also won the category “Best Creation of an Empathetic Experience” for its use of audio from actual wildfire-related 911 calls and realistic depiction of wildfire spread using actual statistics. The “City of Trees” experience, in which players plant trees to reduce CO2 and urban heat stress, won in the category of “Best Illustration of Impact on the Built Environment.” Finally, “Feed Stampede,” which visualized the climate impacts of food choices, won in the category of “Best Use of Facts and Figures.”

Overall, in less than 48 hours, teams were able to create significant projects addressing a diversity of climate issues. The range of projects and experiences illustrate the enormous potential of VR to shape public perceptions and understanding of climate change.