Sustainability Environment

A new virtual reality experience immerses you in a climate change future

virtual planet climate change sea levels rising virtual reality software calil juliano
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Story at a glance

  • Software company Virtual Planet reveals what climate change will do to local environments.
  • The company partners with local organizations to promote climate change solutions with residents.
  • Founder Juliano Calil believes immersing users in hyperreal settings will communicate a strong message about sustainability.

Last week, Marylanders watched their community flood. Sea level rose at Turner Station in Baltimore, and water submerged homes and schools in the area. As they took in the devastation, residents were frightened and confused.

The good news: It was a simulation.

The bad news: This virtual reality is a warning of tides to come. 

This simulation is courtesy of the virtual reality company Virtual Planet. The company plans to help combat climate change, but through a different method: by getting people to experience it. Juliano Calil, a Virtual Planet co-founder and climate researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, wanted to immerse people in the environmental consequences of climate change.

“Our main objective is to start a meaningful conversation about climate change,” he says, “and come up with solutions.” Calil found that the most effective way to catalyze dialogue was through sophisticated virtual reality.

Vision is a powerful sense, and the immersive element virtual reality offers has led to it being used across multiple fields, including job training, video gaming and even art. Calil saw this and set out to make his app as interactive as possible with the hope that it would increase learning and knowledge retention about climate change and the local region. Specifically, Calil wanted to see the effects of the medium on people’s choices when it comes to preserving a resident’s local environment. His big question is: “Does virtual reality technology have an impact on decisions of how to conserve the environment?”  

So far, the answer appears to be yes. Using drone photography, Calil and his team take thousands of photos of any given territory, environment or property, and from there they create 3D models. These images are then presented to local residents in virtual reality goggles. The effects of climate change — usually rising sea level — are then applied. Viewers are often shocked by the results. 

Calil explains that the end goal is to help communities to adapt to a new climate, and “we want to do that through showing impacts, solutions and providing the setting for a meaningful conversation to start.” Calil said that it helps to have “a very strong community leader, a trusted partner,” to help communities develop the solutions they see for their environment. Strategic partnerships with entities such as the City of Santa Cruz, the Santa Cruz Public Library, The Nature Conservancy, The Aquarium of the Pacific and other conservation teams help sustain the drive for solutions. 

So far, Virtual Planet has traveled to several communities in the United States, including Santa Cruz, Calif., and Turner Station in Maryland. It is currently pursuing international projects in Brazil and Lagos, as well as exploring the California wildfires. 

Despite the vividness of the imagery, Calil emphasizes that the virtual reality component is primarily intended to start a conversation about solutions to challenges.