How This 4-Minute Virtual Reality Short Is Taking on Climate Change

Will viewers get the message if aquatic garbage washes over them?

A scene from ‘Coral Compass.’ Elise Ogle and Tobin Asher

The camera swoops through tropical waters, bringing viewers face-to-face with the wear and tear of global warming. Tourists swimming in palatial seas infect the reef with all manner of garbage, which then washes over the audience.

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That’s the premise behind Coral Compass: Fighting Climate Change in Palau, the best (and shortest) of the virtual reality experiences on offer at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

This four-minute film takes viewers to the titular island nation to show how residents are protecting coral reefs from global warming.

Coral Compass is a project of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), which has been studying the behavioral and psychological effects of VR since 2003. For the last 10 years, the lab’s work has also included environmental research.

VHIL manager Tobin Asher told Observer that the lab decided to focus on Palau because the country’s government is working together with scientists to protect natural resources like coral reefs. Leaders are actually changing policies based on what scientists tell them, in stark contrast to the United States.

“It’s a story of adaptation and hope,” Asher said. “We wanted to tell the story that a lot of reefs are threatened and dying, but there are things we can do to save them.”

Telling that story was a time-consuming endeavor: the filmmakers spent two weeks in Palau last July, capturing hours of footage that was edited down into a four-minute short.

The crew had a general idea of the movie’s structure before filming. But fittingly for a movie set mostly in water, Asher said most of the story “flowed” from their visit to the island.

For example, one of the most popular spots on Palau is the Soft Coral Arch.

“There are a lot of tourists there, and that’s kind of the point,” Asher said.

But the day the Stanford crew filmed there, the tourist density was especially large. That led to one of the film’s most arresting images: a large group of swimmers kicking through the pristine Palau water and spreading garbage in their wake.

Not everything in the film is so dire, however. While many Palauian reefs are covered with sediment, Palau is lucky compared to areas like the Great Barrier Reef, where half of the coral is dead.

That’s largely thanks to government intervention. Palauian civic and scientific leaders have planted farms to trap reef sediment. They have also banned residents from cutting down mangrove trees—these structures run along the coastline, and their trunks spread more sediment when they’re in the water.

Most importantly, in 2015, the government designated 193,000 square miles of Palau’s maritime territory as a marine reserve. That means tourists can’t fish or mine there.

The Stanford team decided to film all of these aquatic happenings in VR because of its value as an educational tool.

“When there are tourists above you and beside you, and clear and sedimented waters right before your eyes, the images are more striking,” Asher said.

Tribeca audiences have been responding well to the film, which Asher attributed to its tone.

“It’s not a gloom and doom climate change story,” he said. “It has some hope in it. It’s horrible what’s going on, but there are things that can be done.”

VR stories have become more commonplace ever since Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014. But Asher said it won’t be widely adopted until the equipment gets less bulky and more cost-effective.

“It’s on a trajectory,” he said. “We need to get more affordable and accessible technology.”

At the same time, virtual reality shouldn’t overwhelm other media—or actual reality, for that matter.

“It’s important for us, as content creators, to think about what we’re doing,” Asher said. “VR’s not for everything and shouldn’t replace real world experiences.”

How This 4-Minute Virtual Reality Short Is Taking on Climate Change