New student VR project highlights plastic pollution

Galaxies of plastic garbage as seen in the Ripple VR experience (Courtesy: Ripple project)

A pink sandal popping against a dark background, a tangle of fishing line resembling a bird’s nest – these are just some of the plastic items that now infest the Earth’s seas and oceans.

A new virtual reality, or VR, experience created by Stanford students shows that plastic garbage and brings attention to the problems the use of plastics creates.

The experience, called Ripple: The unintended life of plastics at sea, was created by eight Stanford graduate journalism students as part of Advanced Digital Media Production, instructed by Stanford lecturer GERI MIGIELICZ. It is now available to view with immersive goggles, on mobile or on a desktop computer.

“Global pollution is one of the largest manmade problems of our time,” said Dylan Freedman, one of Migielicz’s students, who spearheaded the work on the project. “I hope this experience will not only raise awareness about the worldwide problem of plastic ocean debris but also highlight a new medium for journalists to tackle future issues.”

Freedman was one of eight students who started working on the project in April 2018, under Migielicz’s guidance. He graduated from Stanford in 2018 but continued to work on the project until it was finished this summer. Freedman spent the past year refining techniques to bring the virtual reality experience to life – including composing and recording a soundtrack.

“A bottle of water, a Ziploc bag, the packaging around a new toy – these things serve their purpose and then get thrown away,” said a student who narrated the VR experience. “But away really means somewhere else.”

The finished experience, which is about five minutes long, showcases plastic objects that were found on shores and photographed by British artist and conservationist Mandy Barker. Using those photos, Barker creates illustrations that look like galaxies that are made up of pieces of plastics.

When Migielicz saw Barker’s work, she was inspired to incorporate it into a VR experience as part of her class.

“My jaw dropped when I saw those galaxies of plastic garbage,” said Migielicz, who is the Hearst Professional in Residence at Stanford, teaching multimedia courses in the Graduate Program in Journalism. “I immediately went on a plastic diet after that.”

Migielicz said virtual reality is not a medium for telling every story, but some subjects, such as plastic pollution, can be discussed with a bigger impact if they are explained in VR.

“The immersive aspect of VR is powerful,” she said.

The experience will be part of the Our Plastic Ocean, an Impressions Gallery exhibition, which launched this summer and will tour around the United Kingdom through 2020.