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Oregon study finds VR can make video more persuasive, for good or, maybe, ill

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(The Center Square) – Observation from traditional video might not be enough to get people to care about environmental issues, according to a new report from the University of Oregon.

Instead, environmental stories told via metaverse technologies, including virtual reality and 360-degree video, may influence people more to “act on environmental threats,” according to the University of Oregon.

A paper published on January 8 in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking said the metaverse providing an interactive experience with issues like climate change or ocean acidification can make the issues, “feel close and personally relevant,” the report said.

“The magic of VR isn’t just that it transports you somewhere, but it meaningfully uses interactivity to reduce psychological distance and increase immersion,” Daniel Pimentel, an assistant professor in immersive media psychology at UO’s School of Journalism and Communication, said in the report. “That is one of the biggest mechanisms in environmental storytelling that we’re not really focusing on but should be. It’s not merely enough to place people in digital environments; we have to ensure that when they’re there, they can engage with the story.”

Environmental communicators can use metaverse technologies to tell interactive stories to change people’s opinions about environmental issues, Pimentel said.

Along with collaborator Sriram Kalyanaraman of the University of Florida, Pimentel conducted a series of studies testing if storytelling through immersive media can impact people’s threat perceptions and desire to engage in pro-environmental activities.

The researchers also looked at people’s attitudes — positive or negative — toward the message and narrative.

“If you want to change minds and hearts, you need a story that people enjoy, right?” Pimentel said in the report. “You want them to enjoy the storytelling experience, otherwise, it’s not going to resonate with them.”

During their first experiment, the academic researchers had the study’s participants watch either an interactive, 360-degree video or a 2D equivalent about climate change in Alaska.

They found that participants who watched the 360-degree video felt a greater connection to the depicted threats compared to those who watched the 2D projection.

“I was probably the most surprised by this result,” Pimentel said in the report, “because VR video alone, without even using a headset, already led to differences in how people conceptualized the information and thought of the threats more concretely and less abstractly.”

Due to VR’s immersive capabilities, the researchers pondered whether or not they could make distant environmental threats resonate better with study participants.

Researchers also had participants watch either a 360-degree video or a 2D equivalent about an underwater exploration looking at coral bleaching.

Researchers told some participants it happened in Florida, whereas others were told it took place in South Africa; all the participants were college students in Florida.

Whether it was a 360-degree or 2D video didn’t have much impact on how participants viewed a local issue. However, it did for when participants thought the issue was far away.

“When it’s a distant story, 360-degree video really matters,” Pimentel said in the release.

To see if a VR headset would elevate these experiences, researchers had some participants watch the 360-degree ocean video through a headset. “Participants with the headset had a more naturalistic way of controlling their point of view, whereas those without had to move by clicking and dragging with a mouse,” the report.

Full immersion in audio and visual in a way that a flat screen cannot achieve caused participants to report greater intentions to help the environment, Pimentel said.

“The more you engage with something, the more concrete and relevant it becomes,” he said in the report. “Immersive media helps you perceive things as happening and occurring more presently. This research is a story of three studies that are saying the same thing: Interactivity increases cognitive absorption, which in turn leads to favorable evaluations of a message and how we see threats.”

Pimentel told The Center Square that his findings could mean there is an opportunity for bad actors to use immersive technology to persuade people of things that aren’t true or to act on threats that aren’t real. The area, he said “needs more research.”

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