Protecting the outdoors from indoors: new UNM VR research: UNM Newsroom

It’s the advice and lesson school children have been taught for ages: Do your part to save the planet. Whether it’s recycling, reducing water use or carpooling, you’ll be taught the importance of helping the environment. Yet it is the actions of many that make a difference.

That’s the lesson Professor Michael Lechuga and graduate student Robert Howard of the University of New Mexico Communication & Journalism (C&J) are trying to uniquely communicate.

We’re tackling environmental issues, but we’re also trying to do it in innovative ways,” Lechuga said.

They partnered with the xReal Lab at California State University San Bernardino to create the video game Reconnections, a real example of why it’s important to trust your neighbors to play their part in a greener future.

Thanks to a nearly $10,000 grant from UNM Research Grants CommitteeLechuga and Howard were able to set up the VR Lab and purchase Oculus gear to transport participants to a remote island.

All we’ve done since then is create a potential environment, or set of environments, that allows people to reshape their connection to the environment and to others,” he said. “Really, that’s the attitude change that we want.”

From there, contestants go through four stages, each designed to test their ability to choose more than the last. It also includes an age-old example of game theory: the prisoner’s dilemma.

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“IIf we all make decisions together that are beneficial to society, we will end up creating a better social bond between us,” Lechuga said.

You will be faced with choices like building bridges to improve the island or building a house for your own interest. You, too, will later have to choose between burning near-extinct creatures or burning your own possessions.

However, in order to level up and reach the end of the game, your other players – with whom you have no contact – must also make the right decision.

TThe prisoner’s dilemma, of course, creates a situation where individual decision makers are always more inclined to choose in ways that help them but do not result in the best outcome for individuals as a group.

“This is the closest to what we experience in the real world. We can do everything right and do our part, but if someone doesn’t do their part, we’re all kind of in ruins.” – Professor Michael Lechuga

The VR tech lets you dive into the decision progress. You can place wooden planks, pick up fish and walk across the land.

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Lechuga says that on average, if you engage with VR technology for 45 minutes to an hour, you’re more likely to embody the character and the situation.

He and Howard believe that seeing is believing. If you really experience the consequences of your actions, it will affect how you behave in real life in relation to climate change.

Environmental activism is often referred to as more recycling or more love for the environment, but we’re really trying to have a different attitude towards the environment,” he said.

You can always look at the numbers too.

Right now people are an estimated 9.5 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year from burning fossil fuels and another 1.5 billion from land changes. Since 1750, humans have increased the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by about 50 percent. As a matter of fact, more than 99.9% of the peer-reviewed scientific papers agree that climate change is mainly caused by us, according to a recent poll of 88,125 climate-related studies.

Developed with the help of Dr. Kate Hoyt at Pacific Lutheran University and Shane Burrell, Jr., a graduate student at the University of Oregon, all collaborators believe there is something to be said about this never-before-seen approach.

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“We tried to mimic how our own ecosystem works and can only be sustained if we really invest in our ecosystems,” Lechuga said.

In his research, he traces much of this back to colonial settlements. Over time, technology and monetization gained prominence, severing the connection between people and the land they inhabit. However, using the same technology, Lechuga intends to bring users back to this original relationship.

“It’s about getting people to think about their attitude, about themselves, about their place in society, about their place in nature, and then change that a little bit,” he said.

This C&J team is looking for 100-200 volunteers to help test the software and solve their ethical issues.

They intend to collect results during the fall semester and plan to compile their data in the spring.

In addition, they hope to expand the simulation and make the decisions more complicated.

You can participate in the study via email Michael Lechuga or Robert Howard.

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