I know I'm not the only kid who swam underwater using my feet as flippers like a dolphin, ran around on hands and knees pretending I was a dog or munched carrots with my front teeth alongside my hamster. Plenty of kids are curious about what life looks like from the perspective of an animal, and the adults who continue that fascination often become zoologists or animal behaviorists.
Now, virtual reality allows those with access to a specialized headset to have the experience of navigating a British forest from the point of view of an animal. Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF), which has worked on other such projects using virtual reality, created a 360-degree experience of three different animals moving through north England's Grizedale forest in the Lake District. Viewers begin the journey as a midge, seeing the world through CO2 "goggles" and then transform into a dragonfly, a frog and finally, an owl.
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For the experience, called "In the Eyes of the Animal," the MLF team combined scans of the woodland with drone footage and photogrammetry (making measurements from photos) data, and footage from a bespoke 3-D camera, then digitally manipulated it using the science behind how different organisms see, as well as some imagination and impressionistic touches. Binaural sound (sounds caused by physical stimuli) and even some vibrations and physical pushes from a SubPac backpack enhance the experience.
You can check out the (very 2-D) video, which gives you a taste of the full experience, above.
Bradley Steel, the creative director at MLF told Vice's Creators Project:
"We’ve always had a hunger for hacking people’s senses by combining art and technology. In the Eyes of the Animal gave us chance to use VR [virtual reality] as a first person perspective medium — the ultimate way to hack someone’s senses. Using VR to immerse someone in the sights and sounds of animals creates empathy by simulating the way that others sense the world. This type of first person perspective experience is — in my opinion — VR at its best."
Perhaps people would be more compassionate towards animals and protective of their habitats if they could see the world through their eyes. (Photo: Luca Marziale/Marshmallow Laser Feast)
The public got to try out this perspective-shifting program at the Abandon Normal Devices art festival and it also traveled to Amsterdam for a few days. The program is funded by the British government.
While this project is certainly fun and interesting, it reminded me about something more serious: What can it teach us about empathy and compassion? Could projects like this be a way to bring those human abilities to the fore once again?
What if we all had the ability to experiencing life as other people, or even as animals? I trace my close relationships with animals that I grew up with (both wild and domesticated) to my long-time vegetarianism and environmentalism. That early empathetic play is part of the foundation of how I see the world: Whenever I come across new construction, the first thing I think about is the animal homes obliterated by it. It's just the way I think.
Similarly, the way anybody thinks is a result of their life experiences, and virtual reality is one way to expand anyone's influences. Giving a wider perception of the world to more human beings seems like a positive thing to do.
The idea of empathy-via-virtual-reality is being tested in a variety of ways, from nature-based games and movies to scenarios that put people in war zones so they can better understand conflicts going on thousands of miles away.
It will be interesting to see if virtual technology might be a powerful way to change reality.