Is VR Good for the Environment?

published Feb 19, 2019
2 min read

Nature VR

We are constantly learning more about how technology and our environment impact one another. The impact can be positive or negative depending on the specific matter at hand, but it’s rare that a major technological innovation happens without affecting the environment in one way or another (or, often, in numerous complex ways).

Despite this clear link, however, there hasn’t been a whole lot of attention directed toward virtual reality (VR) and its potential benefits or consequences for our world. VR can rightly be called one of the bigger technological innovations of the last five years (even if it wasn’t invented recently at all), but as we’ve gotten more used to it and seen it used more widely, we’ve largely ignored the environmental side of the discussion.

The most significant aspect of VR’s connection to the environment is likely to be its impact on education. Science Daily covered this in some daily by citing a Stanford research study that concluded that VR could serve as a powerful education tool by, essentially, putting students in closer touch to the specific ecosystems that will be affected by climate change. The study involved a fairly specific simulation of a coral reef, which students found to be more realistic than they expected, and which seemed to have a strong effect.

More generally though, the concept is to turn climate change from something obscure, abstract, or existing only in text, into something directly accessible that can – virtually at least – be experienced. The hope is that this will greatly increase motivation for people to take action.

Another way in which VR could have a positive impact on the environment is that it will enable more sophisticated testing of a variety of initiatives and engineering projects. It’s difficult to get into specifics in this particular area, but the fight against environmental deterioration and climate change involves complex technological systems, large facilities, inventive engineering, and more than we probably can’t even imagine just yet.

Building these things requires sophisticated planning, significant ingenuity, and trial and error – all of which can be aided by VR. The technology will in many cases give people the ability to test designs and visualise impact, solving problems and perfecting products, systems, and whatever else before actually building them and putting them into practice. In simpler terms, the side of the climate change fight involving inventions and engineering could get more precise, efficient, and effective.

On a more indirect level, there is also some potential that the entertainment side of VR will cut down on some major energy consumption and waste in certain ways. While there’s another debate to be had about the social side of these potential changes, staying at home for VR entertainment can have benefits. Casinos are actually good examples in this regard because in person they use an incredible amount of energy, generate a great deal of waste, and are generally very inefficient from a green living perspective.

VR casinos haven’t quite arisen, but the game variety and the inherent bonus structures of digital casinos have made them popular enough to be positioned for swift VR transitions. Another potential example is sports viewership. Arenas and sporting events cause massive energy usage, lots of waste, and tons of traffic congestion on a regular basis. This may be less and less true as people opt to use VR to stay home and stream events instead.

There are some potential drawbacks to VR from an environmental perspective as well. The materials used to make the actual devices work can be harmful to obtain, and even more harmful to dispose of improperly. That doesn’t seem like a big problem yet, but in a theoretical future in which these headsets become popular everyday tech items, we’re talking about a lot of manufacturing and waste.

To counter this negative point, it’s also been pointed out that longevity will be a factor. VR headsets will not be designed for regular turnover the way smartphones, tablets, and computers are – at least in theory.

This is a complex topic and one that will likely involve a lot more factors as time moves on and the full impact of VR becomes clearer. For now, though these are some things to think about, and the overall indication is that VR may, in fact, be a net positive in our efforts to preserve and restore the environment.