Virtual reality gives people a turtle perspective on wildlife

A virtual reality simulation designed by a UO professor could spur people into environmental action.

Project Shell participants wear a virtual reality headset and assume the body of a loggerhead turtle, with webbed feet instead of arms. In an immersive 15-minute experience, they travel from a boy to an adult turtle, dodging hazards such as ships and wayward fishing gear.

Participation in the simulation increased people’s empathy and concern for environmental issues, new research shows.

“Embodiment of non-human bodies is a powerful tool that environmental storytellers can use,” said Daniel Pimentela professor in UOs School of Journalism and Communication who led the work. “I hope this experience can help raise awareness and hopefully engage the public in a way that trickles down to more support.”

He and his associate, Sri Kalyanaraman of the University of Florida, report their results in the journal Scientific Reports

Inspired by children’s trips to Disney World, Pimentel has long been interested in virtual reality as a means of communication. It can be difficult to get people to feel empathy for mass animal victims. Most people don’t feel the emotional weight of a thousand distant animals dying from warming oceans or pollution in the same way they might mourn the death of a beloved pet.

Pimentel wanted to see if he could make the threats posed by endangered wildlife more personal by letting people experience the world from a sea turtle’s perspective.

His goal was to provoke a phenomenon called body transfer. Body transfer deceives the brain: People wearing the VR headset feel like sea turtles’ experiences are their own.

In the Project Shell simulation, the participants begin to peck their way out of an egg. After that, they grow up to be a sea turtle and face a variety of potentially deadly dangers. To make the experience even more immersive, participants sat in a special chair that orientated them to mimic a turtle’s paddling position. And they wore a haptic backpack that sent vibrations to their spines when, say, a boat zoomed in close by in the simulation.

In a series of studies at the University of Florida and the Florida Museum of Natural History, Pimentel and Kalyanaraman evaluated how participation in Project Shell affected people’s attitudes and environmental beliefs.

The effect of body transfer was generally strong, especially for younger participants, Pimentel found. People often felt that the virtual turtle’s body was really their own.

Transforming into a turtle also affected how participants viewed and reacted to other species in the game.

“When people become sea turtles, they view other sea turtles in the environment differently than other animals,” Pimentel said. “You see them as part of your in-group.”

The experience also shaped people’s environmental beliefs. Overall, the experience of body transfer through the simulation increased compassion for the plight of sea turtles, Pimentel’s team found. And it affected the amount of money people would hypothetically be willing to donate to marine conservation, especially when people played a version of the simulation where they encountered multiple dead sea turtles.

Pimentel was recently named a new faculty member of the UO Environment Initiative and his Virtual Excursions for Science Learning project was selected for a research award from the initiative’s seed funding program for 2022-23. Pimentel is now working to expand Project Shell’s reach beyond museums and universities. With VR headset technology rapidly becoming more affordable, eventually he hopes the simulation could be something people download for themselves and experience on their own personal device.

“I want to make as many people as possible tortoiseshell,” he said.

By Laurel Hamers, University Communications

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