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Tajha Chappellet-Lanier here, trying to remember my first time in virtual reality. As a former technology startup reporter, I’ve had an above-average number of experiences. They really run the gamut, both in style and in impact—from playing virtual reality arcade games (I felt awkward and uncoordinated and a little nauseous, plus the headset was heavy) to filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s truly breathtaking “Carne y Arena,” which takes participants inside the experience of crossing the U.S./Mexico border. For my taste, Iñárritu’s work showcased the great potential that VR has as an imagination and empathy driver. Done right, I’ve discovered, VR can allow us to walk in another's shoes, or “see” something that is otherwise difficult for us to wrap our minds around.

That’s a little of what Caltrans, the Nature Conservancy and the Association of Monterey Bay Area of Governments are looking to accomplish with a new virtual reality app. Built by Santa Cruz-based Virtual Planet Technologies, the app gives users an immersive look at what sea level rise could do to Highway 1 as it passes through Elkhorn Slough

Drawing on AMBAG’s Central Coast Highway 1 Climate Resiliency Study, the app shows what 2 and then 5 feet of sea level rise would do to the wildlife habitat area of Elkhorn Slough, as well as the important transportation thoroughfares of Highway 1 and the rail line. With 5 feet of sea level rise, a video voiceover states, Highway 1 as it passes through the area would be “permanently inundated.” It also shows mockups of two proposed solutions—raising the highway’s elevation using either fill or piles. 

I don’t have a VR headset, so I downloaded a version of the experience to my iPhone and messed around with it there. On a screen it’s less immersion than it is interactive video experience, but it’s certainly eye-opening to toggle between different levels of sea level rise and watch Highway 1 disappear.

The co-founder of Virtual Planet Technologies, Juliano Calil, is an adjunct professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies focusing on international environmental policy. Virtual Planet has made a number of these sea level rise explorers—for Santa Cruz, Long Beach and more. The goal, Calil says, is to help people connect with complex topics of climate change in a visceral way. “When you look at some of these issues and some of the proposed solutions in this more immersive way, people’s reactions are very different,” he says. “They get more engaged.” Before the pandemic, the company would hold events so that people could experience the tool through a virtual reality headset.

Calil envisions the Elkhorn Slough explorer being used by local transportation and conservation specialists, as well as the general public. Heather Adamson, director of planning at AMBAG, agrees. The Resiliency Report itself, she admits, is very technical. This app, therefore, is part of a strategy to communicate the results of the study to more stakeholders—whether they have technical scientific backgrounds or not. “We think it’s a great way to make it more real,” Adamson says.

Using the app, even without the full VR experience, is certainly easier than wading through a 132-page report. Will this accessibility lead to action?

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