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What Is the Impact of Global Warming upon the Marine Coral Ecosystem?

Virtual Reality, an instrument for conservation:

What is the impact of global warming upon the marine coral ecosystem & how to educate the user.

Abstract

Can virtual reality save our ecosystem? Using a 3D environment to educate upon the marine coral ecosystem due to the impacts of climate change. This will be achieved through an interactive time-lapse to show the stages of damage and show if action is taken to prevent global warming these effects can be reversed. This piece’s purpose is to educate the user with visual learning and give an empathetic insight into the user’s motivations by using virtual reality as a means of conservation.

Contents

1. Introduction

2. Purpose
2.1 Virtual Reality and Learning
2.2 Current Trends & Limitations in VR
2.3 Utilising Virtual Reality

2.4 Empathy through VR

3. Methods & Implementation
3.1 Software & 3D Modelling
3.2 3rd Party Assets
3.3 Time Management
3.4 Scaling & Size Calculation
3.5 Photogrammetry
3.6 Narrative & Story Telling

3.7 Interaction & Empathy

4. Discussion

5. Conclusion

Acknowledgements

References

1. Introduction

With the world’s expanding population, our economy’s production requirements have struggled to regulate the control of our pollution levels. This growing demand for production puts high strains on our earth’s climate. As a result, ocean temperatures and acidification levels rise from increased atmospheric emissions and waste concentration. Research shows a 2% increase to be seen by the year  2050 to 2100 worldwide and Carbon dioxide levels to surpass 500 ppm (parts per million) (Harvell et al., 2008). The effects of global warming have had a significant impact on our environment and ecosystem and continue to harm our oceans. This projection will continue if we do not divert our course, causing vulnerability to nutrification and resilience in our oceans (Anthony et al., 2011) with marinal life already suffering from the effects. Particularly some areas, the effects have been rather drastic following serious negative courses such as; the marine coral ecosystem (Boersma et al., 2016) showing us a heavy redundancy in their productive ecosystem.

Research has shown in the article “Bleached!” (Braverman, 2016)  that over 90 percent of coral reefs are at risk of threat by 2030 from warming and by extension, acidification. It’s also stated that 60 percent of the affected coral will be at a critical level. This is an extremely concerning issue with scientist’s as coral reefs are home to over four thousand species of fish. This is one of the many vital roles coral plays however if we lose our reefs as predicted by 2050 (Braverman, 2016), fish and many other marine life forms will perish shortly after. The effects can already be examined on coral reefs such as the Great Barrier in Queensland, Australia one of the most iconic reefs in the world at severe risk of extinction. Environment correspondent Ian Johnston (2017) refers to the Great Barrier as “a canary in the coal mine for global warming” as the world heritage site is no longer salvable in its current state with a decline of 68 percent over 214 reefs (De’ath et al., 2012).

It’s clear to understand the severity of the situation and the negative effects climate change has had on the environment. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of foresight to counter this situation despite the warnings as greenhouse gases continue to increase (Harding et al., 2014). There has been little cooperation from the public addressing the issue. This is a from a lack of coverage and information in aiding the marine coral ecosystem.

The aim of the project is to show how virtual reality can change one’s view of the coral world and connect on a deeper empathic level with the hopes of encouraging the viewer to make some positive changes, with regards to reversing the effects of global warming.

Virtual reality (VR) has high potential to be used as a tool for education and information, a recent study shows students have a higher percentage of enthusiasm for VR in the educational workplace over parents and teachers (from the survey of 500,000 participants) (Nagel, 2017).  VR-based environments offer users new tangible ways of interaction through virtual objects and a flexibility towards learning. This dynamic experience can be the answer to make a stronger effect over traditional methods of teaching and creating a strong emotional impact to act upon. A study shows, the user experience accompanied explicitly by poor usability can cause human performance to become worse and aggravated (Rebelo et al., 2012). Despite this issue, its argued that good usability might still be insufficient towards a good user experience. Successful user experience can be complicated as the interaction of VR is a combined result of cultural, physical and social contexts towards user satisfaction (Rebelo et al., 2012). In this context, good user experience can be challenged with another factor; emotion. Current contents produced for VR has very little in this context, yet plays heavily on the user experience. This interesting idea regarding user experience uses the participants intuitive feeling to act upon climate change and becomes the main drive over the fore mentioned context.

In the spectrum of things virtual reality is still in its early years with much still unknown. We cannot truly say what’s its main function is for however we are seeing the practicality of the tool been used in Entertainment, games and education. Big brand companies such as McDonald’s see the potential of VR as presented at SXSW 2016 (Ferguson, 2016) exploiting their happy meals through an interactive virtual experience. VR has made big leaps into several areas for education spurring on new system development technologies to be used specifically for virtual reality. One place this growing technology is being used is in engineering laboratorys for assisting students in virtualisation and graphical feedback of concepts (Hashemipour, Manesh and Bal, 2011). Another area which VR has potential is surgical education with concluded studies resulting in favour for VR to be used in practice for students. (Olasky et al., 2015). It is mentioned however for VR to be practical it would have to overcome technological issues. The relaunch of VR is still in its early years nonetheless development is confidently continuing to grow, as its first-time appearance wasn’t ready for our world back in 1993 on the Sega Genesis being branded a ‘gimmick’. We are now at the technological point to welcome back this new. Only time can tell if VR is at the beginning of a revolution or a look at what once was?

2. Purpose

2.1 Virtual Reality and Learning

Virtual reality has had a positive impact in terms of education, the emergence of this new growing technology has seen an increase of students and academics come from all borders. Virtual environments have been on the forefront of 3D advancement since its creation, seen mostly in video games and becoming a fundamental element. There is high potential to using a virtual 3D environment in learning. It does come with its challenges such as understanding the pedagogy to virtual learning. Dalgarno and Lee, (2010) have tried to tackle this challenge by finding the pedagogical potential of 3D environments and the benefits to learning over equivalent 2D practices. The authors propose that “representational fidelity” and “learner interaction” (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010) are unique factors to 3-D virtual learning environments (VLE). With representational fidelity referring to the value of environmental presentation display and its quality. Meaning high fidelity is being closer to a realistic display, however realism isn’t referring to just the quality visually. It is also how consistent object behaviour is, realistic communications and applicable action within the VLE through “user representation” (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). Learner interaction on the other hand is a concept that can be expressed more dynamically in which it illustrates the quality of multiple interactions experienced within the user. The authors go on to mention how these factors emerge to create a mental psychological presence between the user and the avatar within the 3-D VLE. It should be noted that not all VLE’s contain avatars although offer what Dalgarno and Lee label as a co-presence or a sense of presence embodied through the user. The authors give their learning benefits (see figure 1) that consist of 5 key functions which are the properties to the learning tasks. These benefits are “spatial knowledge representation, experimental learning, engagement, contextual learning and collaborative learning” (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010).

Figure 1:  Dalgarno and Lee’s concluded framework for learning in a 3-D VLE

Its challenged however by another study that adopts Dalgarno and Lee’s framework and builds on top of the guide they have proposed (Fowler, 2015). Fowler and his colleague Mayes question the user experience if they do have any learning benefits. They argue the case that this can be wrongly interpreted by readers and might be presumed that high representational fidelity and learner interaction would result in a richer learning experience.  Therefore, the author tries to develop a more refined description of the pedagogical potential to benefit a more dynamical factor towards the framework. Fowler and Mayes goal of the combined model will hopefully aid others in designing educational exercises in a 3-D VLE. They state, based on the view of a practitioner, that for a more simplified learning, at a psychological level. This can be broken into three fundamental properties, those properties are “conceptualisation”, “construction” and “dialogue” (Fowler, 2015). This embraces what we describe as the learning environment through both the technological and pedagogical realms.

Fowler and Mayes offer their extended framework (see figure 2) in which offers a more refined model that includes a deeper pedagogical input and adopts a “design for learning approach” (Fowler, 2015)

Figure 2:  Fowlers and Mayes extended framework adopted from Dalgarno and Lee

They both share a common factor to expose the user to a practice that would agree to the “intended learning outcome” (Fowler, 2015). It interesting to see Fowler and Mayes added characteristics include empathy, with regards to immersion, having the ability to empathise to the concept is crucial importance to understanding it. Being able to use this road map will prove useful to the structure of this project and successfully producing the product. With this understanding, it could be argued that high fidelity isn’t important to the project’s success but instead its message through “construction of identity” giving user achievement from self-awareness. We can drive this immersion from the pedagogical guide through exposure of empathy and identification of the user representation, this can be conveyed through a narration that interacts to the marine coral environment this is the first encounter of learning. Secondly the user will be able to explore through their own will and experience first-hand of the situation this will deepen the users learning further. Third is to acknowledge that the user is a key component to the wider context which is stopping global warming.

2.2 Current Trends & Limitations in VR

Virtual Reality is an incredibly experiential medium which is an extremely relevant to the creative market place which grows more popular by the week. Online reports show high praise in VR to grow substantially by 2020 (Virtual reality market to grow twentyfold by 2020 — RT Business News, 2017) (see figure 3) However these projections and claims are thought provoking as stated by Jim X. Chen, lecturer of George Mason and questions if they are real (Chen, 2017) Chen concluded after his discussion with other experts in the field that no one can diagnose specifically a breakthrough of revolutionary or significant VR technology.

Figure 3: Growth revenue projection for virtual reality by Segment 2016

What’s interesting is the seen potential by large companies as previously mentioned with McDonalds. The social media giant Facebook had bought the oculus rift (VR company) for 2 billion. An online article from the Guardian (Dredge, 2014) explains Facebook CEO Zuckerberg’s reason for buying into VR as he was surprised by it. The Article adds from an update status he put online, “At this point we feel we’re in a position where we can start focusing on what platforms will come next to enable even more useful, entertaining and personal experiences,” (Zuckerberg, 2014). This is one company to mention that continues rising forward with technology and shows a clear positive trend with VR.

VR isn’t praised by everyone however, there are sceptics whom fear its uprising and capitalise it as the start to humanity’s downfall. A study into “Virtual Dystopia” by Hunter and Mosco (2014) shows us the fears associated with the emergence of virtual and augmented reality. The authors pose VR as machine intelligence which threatens our humanity due to our stride or arrogance for artificial perfection. This is closely related to the Wachowskis sisters vision from the matrix, portraying machines as the dominant species using humans as their power supply (Hunter and Mosco, 2014).

There implicated risks associated with using virtual reality Maria Korolov (2014) looks into such issues with Facebooks purchase into the oculus rift. Korolov assess VR into five key risk factors, those factors are “physical risk”, “security risk”, “behavioural risk”, “risk of wasting money” and “privacy risk”. It can be argued that the latency between human motion and tracking is still in development causing implications between the two. Korolov mentions this was the case with the oculus rift having a delayed effect causing motion sickness to the user and deemed to unstable for the united states military with investments for VR devices in the $10,000 range (Korolov, 2014).  The same can be mentioned for the latest VR device called the Vive by HTC with reports of sickness from its use (Pino, 2017) although this state is temporarily and user resistance is developed over time. Nausea or vomiting isn’t the only risk associated with VR however Korolov also explains there is more severe states such as epileptic seizures or passing out. Even though virtual reality cannot fool the user into a complete sense of realism it does have the effect of inducing the brain into a given state. This can the user to experience extreme shock and anxiety of the environment such as acrophobia, having a opposite intended effect. This can be an issue with producing a VR experience or marketing  (Korolov, 2014). However, despite causing people to experience their phobias it also has the potential to cure people from their fears as seen with its success in curing arachnophobia  (Steward, 2016).

There’s also a risk of using avatars in virtual space creating a sense of disguise between the user allowing for the potential of harassment. This exploitation of using an avatar as a mask can encourage people to act differently from how they would in real life. This violation can be a high risk for companies especially within communication. It’s been reported that people have been able to hit themselves in the face due to having their vision occluded due to the headset. There is also the fear of falling over such as down the stairs or over an object. (Stein, 2016)

One of the main issues that virtual reality has is its market place and its return on investment (ROI) despite Facebooks large investment into VR it is still unknown what its value has. It’s been recommended for smaller companies to carry out pilot projects before fully investing into the technology to find out what is most appropriate for them (Korolov, 2014). There is also raised awareness over these legal health issued and trespassing using this technology and the serious health problems regarding to the user (Dentons, 2017). Despite the warnings it is too difficult to say if VR is ready to be fully received by the world as the technology is still new with little in general known about it. What can be said about VR is how promising the hardware is to tackle our ambitions and will only continue to strengthen. VR might be praised and feared but it looks to be the direction of humanity’s future and the next step of computer evolution however such health issues need to be addressed before continuing forward on a global scale.

2.3 Utilising Virtual Reality

The entertainment value of VR is promising with its appearance at the Sundance Film Festival 2016 it showcased new and exciting experiences. The VR experience called “Birdy” (Grater, 2016) was featured at the event allowing audience to fully part-take in the virtual simulation where members could lie on a bed and mimic the flight of a bird aided by other feedback senses such as wind from a mounted fan. Another VR film to be presented was Ridley Scott’s “The Martian VR” allowing guest to see from Mark Watney’s perspective and complete task to survive on mars like driving a rover across the dunes (Grater, 2016). The success of the Sundance Film Festival is one of many examples where VR is being used. The concept of VR is spreading towards every sector of the industry with plans for VR to be used in tourism (Guttentag, 2010).

However, the most interesting idea which is proposed in the title is can VR be used as an instrument for conservation. A recent study was done into this idea alongside the comparison of mixed reality and augmented reality based on the “marine conservation movement” (McMillan, Flood and Glaeser, 2017).  The authors concluded that virtual reality does have the potential to exploit knowledge to the public and promote conservation. The game Infinite Scuba by Game Foundry is a reality diving simulation uses real world diving locations allowing user to of any age or capability to explore the environment (www.infinitescuba.com). There was a case study that mentions about the games partnership with “National Geographic Society and mission blue initiative of the Sylvia Earle Alliance” (McMillan, Flood and Glaeser, 2017).

Figure 4: In-game shot of Infinite Scuba by Game foundry

There work was an effort to protect ocean hotspots that are vital to the marine oceans survival they also emphasised plans to expand on education information by integrating a curriculum.  The Authors concluded that the game and the partnership was very beneficial to each other and offered strong visual and compelling content for new audiences (McMillan, Flood and Glaeser, 2017).  The similarity is close to the intended project and plays great importance for the base structure, the difference is the subject matter to the marine coral environment.

2.4 Empathy with VR

Empathy is an important emotion which passes beyond the grounds of sympathy, it allows us to connect with other individuals on a deeper emotional response. Empathy is the awareness for other people’s feelings reflected through our own emotions. Virtual Reality is the ‘ultimate empathy machine’ as dubbed by filmmaker Chris Milk at the TED talks 2015 who talks about his experience and exploration through empathy. Milk show cases his latest work ‘Clouds over Sidra’ which he created for the United Nations to give the user a deeper insight of the Syrian refugee camps and conjures inner empathy from the immersed charitable viewers. He noted the VR film that was most powerful and successful from any of his previous, this is most likely as you experience the film from the eyes of the protagonist Sidra a 12-year-old girl. Milk concludes by seeing through her eyes you emphasis with Sidra and “feel her humanity in a deeper way” (Milk, 2015). Milk ends his presentation with “So, it’s a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected. And ultimately, we become more human.”. Grant Bollmer researches into the idea of ‘empathy machines’ contextualizing VR empathy as not a repeat of “phycological construct” but perhaps a concept theorised by Einfühlung. Bollmer challenges claims about VR can “foster empathy”. He argues that VR experiences that invoke empathy fail to in purposeful sense but instead simply acknowledging the experience of the target. Bollmer claims that Empathy in it historical and contemporary state is a “troublesome concept to embrace for ethical speculation and political theorizing”. Bollmer believes a machine cannot recognise the reality or authority of another’s experience and therefore the experience cannot be claimed on political or ethical form. Milks presentation on empathy is referred to as “Empathy is, here, nothing other than a state of feeling related – of identification, of association – a state that is often assumed to be the primary affective capacity of the human brain” (Bollmer, 2017)

3. Methods & Implementation

The final product is to create a virtual reality experience in which the viewer can experience a real insight of our Marine Coral Environment. The product will include a degree of interactive story telling based upon factual information and allow the user to explore the reef as the narrator presents the situation. The environment will adapt with the narration invoking the user empathetically to make change to prevent further damage to the Coral Environment.

3.1 Software & 3D Modelling

The intended software chosen is Unreal Engine 4 for its capabilities to create believable environments and stable VR integration. It’s in best interest to model a small number of assets through Autodesk Maya and Pixologic Zbrush for portfolio reasons and make a presentable case for employers. These main assets will be taken into Substance painter for texturing then implicated into the Unreal game engine.

3.2 3rd Party Assets

Due to time constrains its most favourable to use 3rd party assets for content creation within the Unreal Engine. These assets would be paid for.

3.3 Time Management

The project undertake would adhere to a strict schedule due to the ambitious nature of the project. In this schedule it would imply: Modelling, Texturing, Game designing, VR test, VR Integration, Interactive Scripting, Story telling scripting, factual information, collaboration with a marine biologist, Photography/ photogrammetry.

3.4 Scaling & Size Calculation

There’s an importance to testing the mechanics for a fluid simulation, one of these issue is working the tracking space from the HTC Vive cameras with the VLE. There’s also a certain configuration for the best optimum visual quality from the headset requiring assets to be correctly set and produce a solid 90 frames per second (FPS).

3.5 Photogrammetry

There is the potential of photogrammetry of coral pieces if able to obtain access too, these scans can be integrated into the interactive environment as hotspot information popup. This pop up will show information of the coral and the photogrammerty version.

3.6 Narrative & Story Telling

The Narrative will be explained from the view of a member in the field but taken with a story adventure attitude to engage viewers. The story will explain key points about coral reefs and the importance it has our marine environment. It will move on to how climate change is affecting our reefs and by extension ocean life. It will finish being telling how our contribution can help prevent further damage or even reverse the damage caused.

3.7 Interaction & Empathy

Interaction and Empathy is the main bulk of the project, users will be able to use the HTC Vive headsets and be transferred into a flourishing coral reef and explore freely within a restricted area. The user is free to select object that have markers for more information about and detailed references off. During there time in the coral reef there will be narrator introducing the coral and the situation. Over time the coral reef will adapt from a flourishing ecosystem to a bleached state and gradually disappears. This is in time with the narration that tries to invoke empathy with the user to inspire self-motivation for change. The VR piece will end with a side by side comparison of the coral ecosystem.

4.0 Discussion

Virtual reality has certainly made its mark on the world within the creative industries. This can be seen with the like of Facebooks $2 billion investment in 2014 (Zuckerberg, 2014). However, with its success so far there has been a great amount of scepticism associated with VR, Philip Iwaniuk a renowned tech journalist gives his hands-on opinions of “How, Will and When VR will fail” (Iwaniuk, 2016).  Iwanuik argues that its popularity and success is so over whelming due to its seen potential but is no more than a novelty. He states that after using VR for some period of time loses its wow factor and the immersion starts to feel like a gimmick. There’s reports that moving around with the traditional WASD keys in VR becomes disorientating and looking behind requires you physically to rotate 180 degree (Iwaniuk, 2016). This report by Iwanuik can easily be agreed that VR does have its limitations however it must be noted that its intentions where exclusively based on gaming. Zuckerberg’s vision to exploit VR is for its entertainment value among the masses to experience immersive media, with plans for gaming in the future. Laura Entis another tech journalist agrees with Mark Zuckerberg vision from 2014 saying that VR is the future and the next logical step forward (Entis, 2017). VR could be argued on both sides as its quickly growing into a new subsector, it’s truly difficult to say whether VR is here to stay of what exactly its potential is. It’s clear to see its practicality thrives better with educational purposes and holds a high entertainment value. The new technology still has a lot of teething problems one thing Iwanuik, Korolov and Stein all agree with is the physical risks involved with VR and are concerned with health issues that can be related to its use. One problem with VR that isn’t widely mentioned is the pixel density that the human eye can see called the ‘Screen door’ effect. Japan has tried to tackle this issue with increased Refresh rate stopping lines appearing between pixels. This is a refreshing sight to see companies tackle issues with VR early on its progression (Regan, 2016).

Despite peoples beliefs that global warming is a myth (Burnett, 2014) there is overwhelming and physical evidence of our marine coral ecosystem dying. Previously stated for example is the Great Barrier Reef with areas heavily bleached as far a 95% (Johnston, 2017). The question is how do we try to reverse the damage through exposure to virtual reality? In interest to this question is the educational value seen with VR and VLE’s this potential has already been cemented with the fundamentals of Fowlers and Mayes framework which will play greatly towards this project. Using there concept of the pedagogical framework (Fowler, 2015) and the theory of representational fidelity and learner interaction (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010) can produce a concise curriculum core for the project underlaid with Fowlers and Mayes factor of ‘Empathy’. This factor is backed up by the work of storyteller Chris Milks ‘Clouds over Sidra’ (Milk, 2015), He emphasises this factor as VR’s most powerful tool and visions the devices true purpose is encompassing the user empathetically.

VR might provide a barrier as people become entranced with the non-real reality and forget of the current environment on the other hand people may become empathized with the real world and act. We have seen the power of VR to cure phobias or in contrast make people anxious from their fear. There’s no saying if VR can in fact empower self-change or motivate a user to change especially if their embodied believes are against the subject matter. Target audience is another factor that would also weigh the success of the projects intentions. Dalgarno and Lee mention VLE’s use avatars and allow a ‘construction of identity’ this presence between the avatar and the user which is embodied from the user representation (Dalgarno and Lee, 2010). However, it’s not vital to the VLE and its functionality and therefore its necessarily needed for this instance however the bond instead is made between the narrator and user. The narrator appeals to the user’s empathy by reflecting on their own actions and their motivations toward climate change. This effect wouldn’t be able with an avatar as the narrator wouldn’t feel direct to the user, it would create a barrier and have no effect. Also as mentioned before people are more enticed to act out wrongly by masking themselves through the avatar and misuse the experience (Korolov, 2014). There is already VR media covering issues on the marine ecosystem like ‘infinite scuba’ by Game Foundry, although interestingly the mechanics of the game uses an avatar to explore. It was however reported that if failed to build curriculum axioms for consensus among lecturers such as what children would need to learn (McMillan, Flood and Glaeser, 2017). The game was treated more to a diving simulator which should be avoided to bring across the message more seriously.

5.0 Conclusion

Can VR save our ecosystem? I believe the potential is there and can be done very successfully if done correct. However, it doesn’t feel viable as an enterprise for personal use with the current market around £400 – 600 for a VR headset. Although, used as an instrument for conservation it has high possibility for achievement and great influence.  The idea of immersion and human interaction seems to intertwine well as seen with SXSW 2016 and Sundance Film Festival 2016 bringing people together. VR not only brings people together but helps bring themselves together. This product can not only help save our ecosystem but also come with other positive benefits such as help people who suffer from aquaphobia (fear from water). It can also transport people to a world they’ve never visited and experience something new for the first time. I feel this outcome is achievable if the right conditions are met, to achieve empathy there must be reflection. The best effect is from being the centre of attention as Milk explains by making you feel what the protagonist feel by stepping in her shoes (Milk, 2015). In this case the centre of attention is the user themselves through self-realisation and their weight they play in saving the world. The piece is; in a hope to ignite marine support globally for the coral ecosystem.

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