Virtual reality — commonly referred to as VR — is the stuff of video games, right? Don your VR headset, gloves and bodysuit and *whoosh*, you’re transported into an alternate landscape. VR makes the imagined world feel real.

Truth be told, VR isn’t limited to just gamers. Numerous applications for the technology are in use, like in military, sports and educational settings, and many new applications are still emerging. At the UW College of the Environment, several scientists are using VR to transport users into environments connected to their work. Whether aimed at supplementing teaching material, assisting in decision-making or simply highlighting the WOW-factor around cool research, VR can be a powerful tool in communicating science.

Here are just two examples.

Bringing the Alaska Salmon Program to your doorstep

The long-running Alaska Salmon Program uses several remote research camps as home-base, a hub to do their groundbreaking work on ecosystem dynamics and sustainable resource management. The camps are nestled in the larger Wood River watershed in southwest Alaska, surrounded by unparalleled beauty and an ecosystem bursting with life.

But not everyone can go there. It’s remote, rustic and serves primarily as support for research. Yet it’s a major draw to students wishing to get their feet wet in the field, and is a visible testament to the power of UW research capacity. It’s a place scientists want to share with others. VR gave them the opportunity to do so, and the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS) partnered with Waterlust, a video and apparel company whose mission is to educate people and support conservation, to create an experience that would transport people into the Alaskan wilds.

SAFS and Marine Biology undergraduate student Andrew Chin tries out the Alaska Salmon Program VR experience.

How does it work? The user puts on the headset and is immediately taken to Alaska, experiencing what a day-in-the-life of a researcher is like. The 360-degree camera offers a truly immersive experience, allowing the user to look in every direction. Fish are everywhere, bright red in color, gathering in large groups preparing to swim upstream to spawn. Some are tagged, telling the user that UW researchers are there collecting data. The camera even takes us underwater, showing us what life is like as a sockeye salmon.

“It’s been fantastic so far, and we’re getting to a new audience of people who have never done VR before. They love it,” says Dan DiNicola, SAFS communications specialist. “Once we had the finished product, we were able to submit it to film festivals, share it on YouTube, it’s now at the Pacific Science Center and has been used at the Seattle Aquarium for outreach events. It’s a great way to show folks the work that UW is doing on salmon.”

DiNicola and SAFS researchers are exploring the possibility of expanding its use and bringing it into the classroom. “We’re thinking about how we might use this in a research capacity, or in observation training like how to corral fish and count them accurately,” he says. “SAFS has now purchased its own 360-degree camera because the possibilities are endless.”

Check out the 360-degree video of the Alaska Salmon Program operating in the field.

Visualizing sea level rise in a 2050 Puget Sound

The Climate Impacts Group has been at the forefront of helping communities plan for the effects of climate change for decades. As part of the Washington Coastal Resilience Project, it helped produce new sea level rise projections for 171 locations along Washington’s coast, with the intent of helping coastal communities and decision makers understand and prepare for the future risks of sea level rise. But to help people really picture what sea level rise could mean for our coasts, the group  teamed up with Tableau, Seattle Public Utilities and the Seattle Public Library to create a virtual reality experience to bring that future to life, and secured funding through an EarthLab Innovation Grant.

“The VR component is meant to communicate about sea level rise specifically in South Seattle” says Heidi Roop, lead investigator on the project. “Seattle Public Utilities is making significant infrastructure investments in the area and are using climate science to guide those investments. We’ve teamed up with them to create data visualizations and a VR experience of future sea level rise to help communicate about sea level rise and why using climate science to inform decisions now is so important.”

The goal of the project is not to only inform decision makers, but to inform the local community as well, Roop says. “We aim to use VR to show how communities can be involved in decisions that impact the future of their communities. Ultimately, this project will show the range of possible futures that climate change may bring to the region and connect that directly to the places and spaces people care about in their communities like green spaces, community centers and businesses.”

Recently, the Seattle Public Library joined the project team, bringing with them new perspectives, skills developing VR experiences and pathways to reach different communities. The library is already using VR to visualize the pre- and post-development landscapes and waterways of the Duwamish River, creating a surrounding exhibit with maps and artifacts from the Library’s collections. Their work covers the past and the present — now this partnership with the Climate Impacts Group introduces a future perspective to the story of the Duwamish watershed.

“We can serve new people because of the partnership with the Library. The Library is trusted in the community and brings valuable expertise to our team,” says Roop. “And they are challenging us to think about how to present the information and communicate it more effectively because of their experiences and knowledge of the cultural history of the region. There is no doubt that their partnership has enriched this project.”

Roop and her partners continue to work on the rollout of the VR experience and will soon be seeking community input into the design. At the end of the day, the project is about enabling people to make smart decisions about things that matter to them, while inspiring and empowering residents in planning for the future of their coastlines and communities.