Gal Litvak

World Wide Web

An experimental VR platform that aims to make climate change impacts around the world feel real and understandable through a multi sensory learning experience. People are invited to enter a virtual space filled with various screens. These screens represent stories, which once activated reveal a collage of images, video and facts from real world, climate change related, occurrences.

The project as it was initially set up at a presentation at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design

A problem of perception

Climate change impact is already being felt around the world in a major way and it's predicted to get worse, much worse (link to David foster Wallace article)… Despite the severity of the situation we find ourselves in, I found that most people I talked to about CC regarded it with apathy, thinking it’s a problem of the future, of some distant land and it’s people or simply view it with skepticism. This gap between climate change reality and peoples inability to perceive it as a real, current day and personally relevant threat was my initial motivation for this project.

Public perception on climate change and it’s risks is critical for achieving the massive societal shift needed to stoping climate change. The question this project seeks to answer is - how can the story of climate change be communicated in a way that will induce deep understanding and emotional engagement.

Psychological distance

This perceptual gap relates to the widely documented ‘psychological distance’ between climate change and the public - a key consideration for effective communication. Psychological distance refers to: temporal distance (the perception that climate change impact is a distant future problem and the temporal gap between harmful actions and their results); geographical distance (climate change is happening elsewhere, far away); social distance (it will happen to other people, not to me) and skepticism (the uncertainty of how cc will effect me). Psychological distance has been found to impact the level of engagement people feel towards climate change. When this distance is perceived as being small people will perceive things as being more immediate and concrete and they tend to feel more engaged. That might sound intuitive - when people view climate change as a present day threat, that is happening where they are and immediately effects them and the people close to them they will feel more engaged. In reality major destructive effects of climate change are being felt around the world today; we are all effected to some extent wether we know it or not and the science is clearer than ever. So how might an effective form of communication that makes this reality tangible and minimizes one’s perceived distance from climate change impact look like?

Framing a solution

In their comprehensive report, commissioned by the IPCC, the Climate Outreach foundation mentions 6 principals for effective climate change communication. Based on these principals and on their analysis of effective visual communication I came up with my own list of principals to form the back bone of World Wide Web.

1. Painting a holistic picture

Climate change isn’t something that exists as an isolated piece. It’s not one thing that happens in one place. It’s not one group of people, one species of animal or one form of plants. It’s the whole or it’s nothing. In World Wide Web users are invited to explore a virtual space filled with real human stories, phenomena and facts. These different pieces of information form an interdependent net to show how events that are happening around the world are connected. For instance, people are invited to explore how the livestock industry in Europe contributes to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, which in-turn effects weather in Europe and induces glacier melt and extreme wild-fires. This net of stories is organized spatially in a virtual space to address peoples sense of geographical, temporal and social distance from climate change. As these connections are internalized people will hopefully feel closer to the effects that are happening around the world in other countries to other people and realize how they connect to events that are happening locally. This platform is also meant to make the causal connections between different behaviors and their impact on our climate more tangible.

The net of stories that made up World Wide Web. I like to think of it as an inteconnected organism that can grow to include more and more stories

2. Making it entertaining

One of the things I was especially happy to see when exhibiting the project was the way children engaged with it. They didn’t necessarily understand it all, but they were hooked. They made loud noises, moved around, jumped, sat down and tried to grab the virtual objects they encountered. I knew I had to make it highly stimulating in order for people to really commit to the experience. By using the VR platform I was able to incorporate images and video, audio, text and the unique spacial characteristics of the medium to create an entertaining multi-sensory experience. Each of the stories that were included in the project were made of a collage of visual, textual and audio materials that would appear once the story was activated. It was important to keep the stories short and precise to keep people engaged while at the same time relaying their important messages.

Images from an exhibition at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design

3. Focusing on real human stories

As discussed in the Climate Out Reach handbook for effective communication, Most people understand the world through anecdotes and stories, rather than statistics and graphs. Aiming for a narrative and showing the human face behind climate change impact makes climate change less abstract and more relatable. Focusing on stories telling peoples day-to-day experience encounters with climate change impact was key.

4. New stories that are happening now

One common misconception about climate change is that it’s a problem of the future. It is no doubt also a problem of the future, but people tend to miss much the present destructive impact of climate change happening today. Telling the story of a present day emergency seemed important in order to fight such misconceptions. Another important thing was telling new stories. People are used to the cliches of climate change - polar bears being stranded in icy waters as ice sheets melt. As stories turn into cliches they loose their emotional impact. Telling new stories seemed important to creating a real empathetic connection.

Hotel manager in Switzerland tells the story of tourism declining as glaciers disappear
A woman in Bangladesh talks about life in the midst of severe flooding
A changing climate cost this Mongolian family their herd which provided them with food and a livelihood
Scientist in Siberia talks about the implications of perma frost melting
The everyday implications of severe droughts in Brazil

2D or not 2D

Using 2D documentary style images, and video inside a virtual space, rather than 3D objects, was an unorthodox choice. Visuals depicting real events happening around the world were used to give these stories validity while at the same time using the immersive characteristics of VR to make interacting with these stories highly engaging. I imagined World Wide Web becoming (possibly in the future) an open source platform to which people would be able to add their own local experiences of climate change impact. I like to think of it as an organism that would grow as more stories would be added and linked to the existing net of content. Using relatively simple building block (text, sound, 2d images and video) to create these stories would make uploading content to the platform possible for anyone with a smartphone. In this way WWW could become a robust, immersive archive of an ever growing net of climate change impact stories.

The view from inside the headset. When a story is activated connections to other stories appear

Building the interaction

I wanted to create the experience of strolling around the virtual space and interacting with the stories on your own pace to resemble walking around an exhibition. The work was made to be feature in an exhibition which would make it an exhibition within an exhibition. Since visitors of all ages, various backgrounds and various levels of technical mastery were planed to experience it, it had to be highly intuitive even for people who never put a VR head set on. At the same time it had to allow a sense of playful interaction in order to make it engaging and experiencial. The solution was using one’s gaze to interact with the virtual surrounding. A dot at the center of the screen represented a cursor and by staring at a screen or button one could activate or disactivate stories. This solution allowed for a variety of actions and was simple enough for a diverse audience to get it.