Our oceans have a health problem. Virtual reality (VR) may be able to help out.

The world's natural wonders and virtual reality were made for each other. Not everyone can climb down into the Grand Canyon or visit the Great Barrier Reef. But with VR systems becoming more advanced and widespread, many more people could soon be able to pay them a virtual visit and reap the benefits of a "trip" to a gorge, forest or mountaintop.

The program is a virtual field trip to a vibrant underwater coral reef.

Stanford University researchers have taken this idea out of the realm of science fiction and brought the oceans into the classroom. They're concerned with a lot more than tourism. The health of the oceans is intimately linked to the health of the people. And the oceans have a definite health problem.

They're acidifying.

Just as dissolved carbon dioxide makes a bottle of soda acidic, much of the carbon dioxide that has been building up since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has dissolved in the oceans and increased their acidity. While it's hardly reached the stage where we have carbonated oceans, the increase in acidity is toxic to many forms of marine life and has led to widespread die-offs.

An Immersive Trip into Nature and Time

It's one thing to read about this and another entirely to experience what actually happens to pink coral, essentially dissolving it when acid levels get too high. The researchers wanted to test if seeing the acidification of coral reefs through virtual reality could inspire and educate people about the problem.

They tested their VR program, The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience, on more than 270 people in four different settings — from students in a California high school to adults at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The program starts in the present and journeys into a much less vibrant future, as increasing acidification causes more and more species and ultimately your own skeleton to disappear by the end of the century.

VR isn't just another technical gimmick that can waste classroom time. Tests of the program revealed that for high school students the virtual field trips imparted long-lasting knowledge. Students' scores on questions about the details of ocean acidification increased by almost 150 percent, and they retained that knowledge when tested several weeks later.

The participants also found the experience more immediate than simply reading about ocean acidification. “It was way more realistic than I expected,” said one high school senior. She's hardly alone.

Adults who took the virtual field trips also became more knowledgeable or at least showed a desire to learn more on the topic. And while this wasn't a particularly rigorous study (there were no controls), it does serve as a proof-of-concept study, showing that VR field trips can both teach and inspire, even in a classroom setting.

“We don't know whether a VR experience results in more learning compared to the same materials presented in other media,” said study co-author, Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford University and founding director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “What we do know is that it increases motivation — people are thrilled to do it, much more so than opening a textbook — and because of the richness of the data recorded by the VR system, you can tweak the learning materials in real time based on how well someone is learning.”

There are three different ways to download or view the program, including one from Steam. You can find specific downloading and viewing options here.

The study appears in Frontiers in Psychology.