Can you feel empathy for a tree in VR?


Back in 2017 I connected with David Romero from HTC Vive. David is involved with Vive’s VR for Impact programme which provides grants for VR apps that support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. David introduced me to the programme and even joined me for a #CPDinVR panel discussion about Empathy and VR.

During that panel discussion, David spoke about the original three apps which had been named as a part of the VR for Impact programme. One of these was an experience called Tree and I was fascinated by the concept alone – become a tree in virtual reality and experience life in a forest which is ultimately the victim of deforestation. The idea seemed a little crazy but in a good way. Many developers have used VR to foster empathy for other humans or cultures but can you actually get a human to feel empathy for a plant?

Sadly the experience was not publicly available at this point as it was being hosted at various festivals and events in a multi-sensory capacity, using things like heat lamps and fans to add to the immersion. Several VR folk I’m connected with in the YS tried it though and their feedback made me even more eager to test it myself. Luckily for me then, a home version of Tree recently launched via Viveport!

Here’s a full playthrough of the experience that I just published to my YouTube channel:

As I state towards the end of the video, it really is interesting to experience the climax of the app when the fires begin to burn towards you. As a human, your brain instantly tells you “move away from the fire” in a similar way to the way it tells you not to step off the plank in Richie’s Plank Experience. Of course this is fruitless when you are rooted to the ground and cannot escape your fate. I do really like that they switch you to a 3rd person perspective when the flames reach you though as psychologically this could be quite jarring if you are made to feel like you are being burnt alive.

I let one of my daughters try this experience today. She loved waving her arms around as the branches and the whole experience of growing. She’s no stranger to VR but nonetheless I decided it best to warn her in advance that the forest would be set on fire towards the end. It was fascinating to watch her reaction to the final stage of the experience. She wanted to know why people would do this, so I started to give her the types of answers that those responsible for deforestation would typically give. She would not accept it. She could not see that any reason I gave her justified the destruction of the forest. It was genuinely touching to watch her learn this valuable lesson in such a visceral way. I hope that it informs the way that she views the world she is growing up in.

You can learn more about Tree via the official site www.treeofficial.com

You can download Tree from Viveport here.

#HTC #Vive #empathy

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