125 Stanford Stories

NO. 118

Diving virtually into fragile oceans

Stanford VR experiences take viewers underwater to convey risks of human activity to ocean life

Scientists know that if humans don’t curb our output of carbon dioxide, we will cause great damage to our oceans.

Unlike similar phenomena such as global warming, the growing acidification of our oceans through CO2 absorption is little known to the general public. Motivating people to change behavior and policy in ways that help the oceans is a greater challenge still.

Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab helps to convey the fragility of Earth’s oceans through free, downloadable virtual reality experiences that take users underwater to see what marine scientists see.

The latest, the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience, is a science education tool for a VR headset device that lets users see what unchecked acidification will do to the ocean a century from now.

“One of the most difficult parts of my research is getting people to care,” says biology Professor Fiorenza Micheli of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. Micheli studies the effect of carbon dioxide on ocean life.

Thirty percent of the carbon dioxide generated by human activity dissolves into the oceans, where it acidifies the water and impairs formation of corals and other sea life.

The diversity of sea life drops and algae proliferate, causing disruption all the way up the food chain. Its effects spread to humans as food sources and fisheries are hit.

Through the Ocean Acidification Experience, users follow carbon dioxide molecules from vehicle tailpipes to the sea. They dive below the surface, moving amid coral as it loses its vitality and observing the effects of increasingly acidic water on marine life.

They reinforce their learnings while in the virtual environment by performing activities such as species counts – a common way biologists observe change in a given area over time.


Watch the trailer for the Ocean Acidification Experience.

In a video for cellphone users with VR apps, dive with Fiorenza Micheli to a reef off the Italian island of Ischia, where volcanic vents naturally emit carbon dioxide and allow researchers to extrapolate the effects of increased acidification over a larger area.