BluePlanet – Visualizing Rising Sea Levels in VR

This project was created at a recent 24-hour environmental Hackathon, where participants were prompted to create an entirely new way of visualizing data through “a story”. I immediately knew that Virtual Reality would be a great fit for the project and began to search for a way to make something relevant using the power of the VR medium.

One of the big problems around data visualization is that it tends to feel impersonal and distant to the average user, which was my target audience. This becomes an issue specially when you’re trying to transmit a sense of urgency with predictions and consequences that go way beyond a viewer’s lifetime.  In my project, I wanted to raise awareness around climate change – more specifically, the rising sea levels of the ocean from 2016 to 2100, allowing the user to see both the numerical and physical impacts of these data models in a tangible, immersive and slightly more personal way.

To do that, I transported the user into a virtual beach, where the entire experience takes place. Before beginning, the user can choose 1 out of 4 different RCP (Representative Concentration Pathways) models, each representing a different set of predictions for the world’s sea levels ranging from optimistic to pessimistic. After performing the selection, the users can control a real-time simulation of the Earth, and travel through time as interact with a virtual globe that showcases relevant data for a variety of countries that can be explored.

As the years go by, the sea levels begin to rise, and the beach you’re on realistically responds to these changes, having its own sea levels realistically affected. As the simulation progresses, several bits of data are continuously displayed and updated around a virtual globe, showcasing the currently selected country’s financial loss, loss of landmass, current sea level change as well as the number of homes lost to flooding (all based off real predictions). Users are free to switch between a variety of countries as well as physically manipulate the Earth and the passage of time with simple controls.

Although simple in concept, this project allowed users to have a much grander understanding of the world’s rising sea levels in an experience much more engaging than tables and graphs (without sacrificing factual accuracy). The combination between interactive data visualization and real time changes to the user’s surrounding environment was beautiful, effective and even fun. Definitely want to do more projects like this in the future.

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