How will virtual and augmented reality affect sustainability?

One major technological change happening right now is the development and spread of virtual reality and augmented reality. Once confined to sci-fi novels, these technologies are becoming routine. This is apparent, for instance, with Facebook’s recent announcement that it will roll out a virtual reality environment for its users.

But what effect, if any, will virtual reality and augmented reality have on sustainability? We asked a range of experts the following question: How will virtual and augmented reality change humanity’s approach to living sustainably on this planet? Several experts highlighted direct positive effects: these technologies reduce carbon footprints by negating the need for travel and by reducing resources used to plan real-world activities. They also can improve understanding of sustainability issues. But it is also an open question whether these technologies would have a meaningful impact on humanity’s resource consumption. Would the rise of virtual reality and augmented reality not simply shift our consumption towards supporting our existence in a simulation, rather than in this reality?

Robin Hanson – Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Research Associate at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute

It would be nice if there were a connection between AR/VR and sustainability, but alas I don’t see much of one. You might think that as AR/VR deals with virtual and electronic things, instead of physical things, that its popularization would result in less use of physical resources. But in fact, AR/VR takes real resources, and demand for AR/VR is not naturally bounded. With AR/VR, there will always a demand for more resolution, more simulated detail, and faster response times. While AR/VR might modestly change which resources are used how much, I don’t see AR/VR changing overall usage levels greatly.

Jeff Ross – Vice President of Engineering at MasterpieceVR

VR is a technology that allows people to work in a completely immersive environment either individually or collaboratively. As such, it is much more suitable for remote working than existing tech like teleconferencing and WebEx. People can share their work and collaborate effectively in a workspace unconstrained by the need for physical spaces. This enhances their experiences and reduces the need for centralized office space. This gives all of the advantages of people working together – such as presence and shared environment – without the need to build and maintain large office buildings or commute to central locations.

VR also allows people who live in smaller apartments to experience completely different spaces for work. They can construct a 10,000 square-foot penthouse studio with a beach view and all of their equipment and resources, without needing to leave their 500 square-foot apartment.

Clearly this could completely transform our use of cities and infrastructure. At rush hour, there could be no more time wasted, no more energy emissions, and no more accidents. You could be at work five minutes after breakfast in Los Angeles while living in Costa Rica. Cities could focus infrastructure development on social living rather than on office space. We could build a global workforce without a single building. You could work wherever you have internet connectivity. VR also has the ability to allow people to be present in any real location to attend events – in the best seats – without the human footprint, transport cost, infrastructure.

Of course, VR also allows us to imagine and test new spaces long before the need to build them. Rather than looking at static images or movies, we can walk around the space in the virtual world to assess its advantages and disadvantages. And since we’ve constructed a 3D model, we can do many types of simulations (weather, social, flow, etc.) so we will know exactly how it will behave.

Hans-Balder Havenith – Professor of Geology at the University of Liège

One answer is provided by the Star Wars movies: augmented reality helps represent people at virtual meeting rooms that require limited carbon dioxide consumption. We are not very far from this. It is technologically possible now, even for practical applications. A complex ten-hour surgical intervention in Berlin, for instance, can be supported by an expert in Tokyo who is only virtually present. The advantage of VR compared to simple video conferences is that the Japanese surgeon could actively interact by showing the kind of hand movements to be completed, even inside a patient. 

In my field, people have problems imagining that a major disaster could affect them one day, especially when talking about natural events that may only hit once a century or even less frequently. VR can help raise awareness of risks related to such rare events – not necessarily by immersing people in disastrous situations (as fear may hamper awareness-raising), but just by allowing people to cross time and see that such events really can affect them.

I also believe that the vague concept of “probability”, which is almost only understood by experts (and certainly not by all!), could be brought nearer to people through immersion in environments adapted to visualize such concepts. This could be done, for instance, by using transparency effects applied to certain elements or processes according to their probabilities. Immersive environments have the advantage compared to others, such as 2D-projected ones, to allow for fully combined space and time perception.

Nihanth Cherukuru – Project Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)

AR/VR has the potential to contribute to sustainability both directly by making certain processes sustainable, and indirectly by encouraging people to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. AR/VR technologies can be used by geographically dispersed teams to lessen the need for travel and reduce their carbon footprint. In the design and manufacturing sector, the advent of real-time photorealistic rendering capabilities in conjunction with AR/VR technologies can help reduce the number of physical prototypes required in the visual design process, thereby reducing material waste.

The inherent immersiveness of VR combined with the realism of AR can help us connect with people at a visceral level, thereby highlighting the importance of sustainable living. Outreach material based on these technologies can be used to educate people about the worldwide effects of climate change through interactive storytelling in ways that are more engaging and persuasive than standard approaches.

Olle Häggström – Professor of Mathematical Statistics at Chalmers University of Technology

Consider, perhaps not implausibly, a scenario where AI-driven automation leads to technological unemployment approaching 100%. Even if we solve the economic redistribution problem (e.g. through robot tax and universal basic income), the issue remains of what people will do instead of work. The usual reaction to this is that if people decide to engage in arts, literature, love, and so on, then all is well, while if everyone reverts to their sofas playing video games, then all is lost. 

I’m no longer so sure about that last conclusion. VR steadily improves, and eventually it will produce experiences just as rich as physical reality. It’s not clear why we should then insist that physical reality is more valuable than the VR world. In a nested hierarchy of simulated worlds, why would one step up in the hierarchy always be better? Taking the blue pill needn’t be a cowardly and deplorable choice, even when it means leaving it to our robots to take care of sustainability of the Earth’s biosphere.

Gabo Arora – Founding Director of Johns Hopkins’ Immersive Storytelling and Emerging Technologies

The consequences of sustainability are hard to imagine. What will happen if we don’t live sustainably? How can things get better if we do? VR and AR can help us imagine these futures with their inherent abilities to world-build. We can make speculative futures and we can extrapolate and understand the data through spatial visualizations, adding testimonies and stories in the process. This all will allow humanity to embody, live, and understand a future it wants and to work towards it. Such a desired future won’t feel as distant or abstract.