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Who Reacts to a VR Tree Falling in the Forest?

Stanford Tree Cutting ExperimentIt sounds like a hokey premise; that VR can somehow instil behavioral changes in us to do great things for our environment - but what if our VR actions really do subconsciously influence our real life behavior?

Stanford University is starting to find the answers in their tree cutting study. Users go through the action of standing in a virtual reality forest with a mix of haptics and a VR display with surround audio. The user cuts down a tree and feels every chainsaw rumble as they do it. The result? According to Stanford, that VR experience will lead to a 20% drop in paper consumption and the subject will seek out recycled goods for the foreseeable future. In contrast, participants that just watch a video and read articles about deforestation will have a similar result, but the positive effect of taking on a more environmentally friendly path won't last more than a week.

If Stanford's results hold up, it would seem that living IS learning, and a lot of good could be achieved through this. At a minimum, this demonstrates that VR can influence in ways that other forms of media can't - or at least not as well.

If true, this is an excellent affirmation for military training, diplomacy, garnering empathy from others, education, simulations, serious games and countless other applications that are best suited for actually living out experiences for long term memory or behavioral change.

Here's the thing. The above speaks to designed experiences that are seeking purposeful changes in the way the subjects behave - hopefully for positive outcomes. With countless forms of VR content hitting the market whose only purpose is to entertain...what's the other side of the coin? Is it feasible that behaviours can change even though the entertainment had no intended ramifications beyond providing the user a good time?

The research is preliminary, and it's probable that certain conditions need to be met for effectiveness.  There may also be limitations on the types of behaviors that translate and how.  Still, this is an important consideration for when VR does become a mass market medium.