Sri Kalyanaraman and CJC Alum Comment on Their Virtual Reality Loggerhead Turtle Project
Sri Kalyanaraman, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications (UFCJC) Journalism professor and director of the Media Effects and Technology Lab, and Daniel Pimentel, Ph.D. 2020, are quoted in “Virtual Reality Boosts Students’ Empathy for Nature” published in insidehighered.com on July 26.
The article focuses on Kalyanaraman and Pimentel’s Project SHELL (Simulating Living Habitat Experiences of Living Loggerheads), a research project between UFCJC and the University of Oregon. Participants wearing a VR headset can experience what it is like to be a loggerhead sea turtle and the obstacles they face. As a result, participants gain an increased sense of empathy for the turtles, a better understanding of the impact of environmental threats and motivation to protect the species and its habitat.
“Plenty of people are moved to tears after experiencing a [VR] boat strike or having to abandon their clutch of eggs,” said Pimentel. “It is easier for humans to empathize with a single victim rather than a group. When it’s many, we are less capable of inferring the group’s emotional state, and we can identify less with the collective suffering, which can lead to desensitization.”
He adds, “To be sure, the technology has pitfalls, especially when simulating traumatic experiences in nature. Students need context. For example, the VR simulation of a turtle caught in fishing gear might be paired with readings and discussions of how threats are addressed in the real world.”
“You lose track of who you are,” said Kalyanaraman, about the desolation he experienced while embodying a penguin floating alone on an iceberg during a VR simulation. “I’m looking all over the place, and I can’t find the food. My very survival is now contingent on ‘what am I going to do next?’”
Pimentel also spoke of a (real) young person named Turtle—so named when his parents noticed that he flailed on his back like a turtle after he was born. He grew up to love turtles, and Pimentel was moved to witness his reaction in the turtle embodiment simulator.
“They say don’t meet your heroes,” he said, “but they never said anything about embodying them.”