Testing a new time-traveling VR experience that explores sea level rise in Seattle

The Our Future Duwamish VR experience created by The Seattle Public Library and the University of Washington explains how gases like carbon dioxide traps solar radiation in the Earth’s atmosphere, and connects that with melting glaciers that are causing sea level rise. (UW/SPL Image)

The Seattle Public Library and the University of Washington have created a virtual reality experience for teens and families that explores climate change and its impacts on sea level rise in Seattle’s industrialized Duwamish River and South Park neighborhood.

“We want to reclaim the idea of the Duwamish River as it was before, and bring awareness about how it has changed and what the coastline will look like in the future,” said Juan Rubio, SPL’s digital media and learning program manager.

SPL was eager to use technology to engage teens who may have grown weary of online instruction over COVID-19. Researchers with the UW Climate Impacts Group were excited to make rising sea levels more tangible.

“We’re stepping into a crystal ball.”

“VR allows us to give people an experience that we couldn’t otherwise give since we’re looking toward the future,” said project leader Heidi Roop, who began the effort at the UW and is now at the University of Minnesota.

“We’re stepping into a crystal ball,” Roop said, adding that the project is based on real data.

The team loaned GeekWire a pair of Oculus Quest 2 goggles to try out Our Future Duwamish. The experience launches with an explanation of global warming science while whizzing through a star-filled outer space. It places users in a Western Washington forest among massive evergreen trees, before the arrival of white settlers. It travels to the shores of the Duwamish to show Native American settlements, as well as current development and pollution. The project illustrates sea level rise in the region and shares actions people can take to limit and respond to climate change.

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I enjoyed the experience overall, but as a VR novice I was too clumsy to engage with some of the features. My lack of coordination kept me from picking the forest’s blueberries. When we arrived on the shores of the Duwamish, I accidentally rolled a discarded bottle into the river instead of depositing it into a trash bag. Later, carried away by my newly discovered ability to walk, I careened deep into a riverside development and got lost.

The South Park neighborhood along Seattle’s Duwamish River. (Brewbooks Photo via Creative Commons)

VR-savvy teens, I suspect, would likely find the cartoonish graphics simplistic compared to the more realistic, detailed worlds served up in video games. But Rubio said that’s OK: “There is a certain value to not being perfect.”

Luckily most of the educational content flowed uninterrupted despite my bungling. The information was useful and easy to grasp. It suggested climate solutions that avoided the trap of putting blame and responsibility solely on individuals, and instead noted that systemic change is needed.

Roop hopes to keep using VR as a communication tool for climate conversations. She imagines projects that allow people to manipulate their surroundings and show the impact of different interventions to lessen the effects of sea level rise. The tool could be particularly valuable for elected officials and other decision makers.

“Seeing is believing,” Roop said. It could help people see “the urgency and the imperative to act.”

The Our Future Duwamish project received support from sources including an innovation grant from UW EarthLab, Seattle Public Utilities, National Science Foundation, University of Minnesota and the Academy of Interactive Entertainment in Seattle. A UW undergraduate in computer science led the VR development.

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The Duwamish project is just the latest VR effort from SPL. In March 2019 the library created a VR project focused on the Great Seattle Fire, then in September it debuted The Evolution of the Duwamish River. Those experiences were hosted at Seattle’s Central Library and included physical displays.

In October 2020, SPL received a $247,307 grant to create a VR project helping teens struggling with mental health issues in the wake of the pandemic. The project incorporated input from teens and undergraduate interns to research and co-design the experience.

Due to COVID, the Duwamish VR experience is not currently available for use at libraries. Instead the Oculus headset can be checked out by community groups that agree to take responsibility for the devices. That includes organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs, youth groups or 4-H Clubs.

“The VR creates this interest” that’s great for attracting teens, Rubio said. “It creates that entry point.”

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