STANFORD, Calif. -- Inside a lab on the Stanford University campus here, students experienced what it might feel like to be a cow.
They donned a virtual reality helmet and walked on hands and feet while in a virtual mirror they saw themselves as bovine. As the animal was jabbed with an electrical prod, a lab worker poked a volunteer's side with a sticklike device. The ground shook to simulate the prod's vibrations. The cow at the end was led toward a slaughterhouse.
Participants then recorded what they ate for the next week. The study sought to uncover whether temporarily "becoming" a cow prompted reduced meat consumption.
The motivation wasn't to make people vegetarians, said Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab. But the project hoped to uncover whether virtual reality could alter behaviors that tax the environment and contribute to climate change.
"If somebody becomes an animal, do they gain empathy for that animal and think about its plight?" Bailenson asked. "In this case, empathy toward the animal also coincides with an environmental benefit, which is that [not eating] animals consumes less energy."
It's one of several environment-related experiments Bailenson is conducting in the lab, all tailored toward revealing whether there are new ways to encourage environmental preservation. Volunteers also have virtually chopped down a tree, a study aimed at examining attitudes toward paper use. Others took a virtual reality shower while eating lumps of coal -- literally consuming it -- to gain insight into how much was needed to heat the water.
Virtual reality, along with computer games and other kinds of technology, is being used to approach environmental issues from new angles. The National Science Foundation awarded a $748,000 grant to Stanford and Harvard University to run four experiments. Meanwhile, in Vancouver, British Columbia, that city, smaller townships and professors from the University of British Columbia are running sustainability-related experiments that use visualization techniques.
The work is important because many people have difficulty grasping climate change facts, said Tim Herron, who manages the Decision Theatre lab at the University of British Columbia.
"It's just a much more compelling way of getting people to understand the effects of their behavior now on the future," Herron said. "It's about visualizing the data for people. Once people can see it, it's amazing how much it changes things. People begin to really understand the necessity to make some changes now to prevent these sort of things."
Studies have long-term impact
Virtual reality experiences can alter behavior, Bailenson said. The tree experiment in particular, he said, has stuck with those who went through the experience.
The research came out of a news article Bailenson read that said if people did not use recycled toilet paper, over the course of their lives they would each use up two virgin trees.
In the subsequent experiment Bailenson ran, students stood in the virtual reality version of a forest where they heard wind rustling and birds chirping as they flew past. The participants held a device meant to represent a chain saw, and felt resistance as they passed it back and forth through a tall tree.
The wood cracked, then crashed to the ground with a thunderous boom. The forest fell silent, birds no longer singing.
Before the student left the lab, a woman there knocked over a glass of water on a desk and asked the participant to help her clean it up. The people who had gone through virtual reality used 20 percent less paper than those who had watched a video of a tree being cut down, Bailenson said.
Bailenson said he gets emails months after that experiment from people telling him they can't walk down the toilet paper aisle of a store without thinking about the falling tree.