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Testing a new time-traveling VR experience that explores sea level rise in Seattle

Published on June 16, 2022

Photograph of Duwamish river seen from South Park Bridge, Seattle, Washington.
Duwamish river seen from South Park Bridge, Seattle, Washington. Image Credit: brewbooks (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Seattle Public Library and the University of Washington have created a virtual reality experience for teens and families that explores climate change and its impacts on sea-level rise in Seattle’s industrialized Duwamish River and South Park neighborhood.

“We want to reclaim the idea of the Duwamish River as it was before, and bring awareness about how it has changed and what the coastline will look like in the future,” said Juan Rubio, SPL’s digital media and learning program manager.

SPL was eager to use technology to engage teens who may have grown weary of online instruction over COVID-19. Researchers with the UW Climate Impacts Group were excited to make rising sea levels more tangible.

“VR allows us to give people an experience that we couldn’t otherwise give since we’re looking toward the future,” said project leader Heidi Roop, who began the effort at the UW and is now at the University of Minnesota.

“We’re stepping into a crystal ball,” Roop said, adding that the project is based on real data.

Roop hopes to keep using VR as a communication tool for climate conversations. She imagines projects that allow people to manipulate their surroundings and show the impact of different interventions to lessen the effects of sea level rise. The tool could be particularly valuable for elected officials and other decision makers.

“Seeing is believing,” Roop said. It could help people see “the urgency and the imperative to act.”

The Our Future Duwamish project received support from sources including an innovation grant from UW EarthLab, Seattle Public Utilities, National Science Foundation, University of Minnesota and the Academy of Interactive Entertainment in Seattle. A UW undergraduate in computer science led the VR development.

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Originally written by Lisa Stiffler for GeekWire
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