FNC FORUM: Should we stop making VR to save the planet?

FNC FORUM: Should we stop making VR to save the planet?

December 12, 2023

On Friday October 13, the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma’s FNC FORUM addressed a key issue for producers of digital experiences: should we stop making VR to save the planet? For the occasion, Philippe Bédard hosted a discussion with Landia Egal (Founder – Tiny Planets) and Amaury La Burthe (Founder – Novelab), the creators of the immersive installation Okawari and the Case d’étude pour un immersif responsable (CÉPIR).

Aware of the environmental footprint of overseas travel, French panelists Landia Egal and Amaury La Burthe chose to take part in the event virtually.

A look back at a fascinating discussion.

Video headsets: the scarecrow in the room

Philippe Bédard set the scene for the discussion by summarizing the issues facing creators producing content for virtual reality headsets. “Unlike the collective experience of cinema or other art forms, virtual reality is limited by the headset. A device that is necessary, individual. How can we reconcile the desire to reach a large audience, while taking into account the environmental impact of achieving this goal?”.

Indeed, a mass market for VR means a large number of headsets. As we all know, these immersive headsets contain rare materials that are difficult to recycle. There is also a major environmental impact associated with their manufacture and distribution.

Climate change: when the subject becomes the cause

Landia Egal’s stance on this issue crystallized in 2019, when she was invited to Adelaide, Australia, to submit a virtual reality project designed to raise awareness of climate disruption. At the time, Australia was in the grip of terrible bushfires. Landia Egal quickly assessed the carbon impact of her flight to Oceania and considered the irony of the situation.

However, her thinking didn’t stop there. “If we want to use virtual reality to raise awareness of these issues, how many people would we need to equip [with viewing headsets]? Under what conditions? How much of the carbon budget – which should be decreasing – should we devote to this?”

After all, as she points out, “if we contribute to the development and democratization of [virtual reality] markets, we also contribute to this infrastructure, to the manufacture of headsets, the setting up of networks, the establishment of server centers, antennas, satellites, et cetera”. What’s more, this system consumes non-renewable raw materials.

Okawari: a free experiment on overconsumption

These concerns are among the inspirations for Okawari, an immersive and interactive installation premiering at Venice Immersive (Venice Biennale) in 2022 and presented this year at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal. This creation, by Landia Egal and Amaury La Burthe, was co-produced by Montreal studio Dpt. and is distributed by Hubblo.

Concerned about the environmental footprint of their creations, Landia Egal and Amaury La Burthe set about “overcycling” the work VR Unami, presented for the first time in 2018. As Amaury La Burthe points out, they took care to “reinvent and rewrite a story, which has nothing to do with the initial project” to deal with a new subject: overconsumption.

But that’s not all: Landia Egal explains that the Okawari experience also has “a hidden side”. The project has been designed to be able to “show the environmental impacts that are associated with its production, creation and distribution”.

CEPIR: striving for better

Okawari is at the heart of the Case d’étude pour un immersif responsable (CEPIR), which was set up to assess the environmental impact of XR. The two guest panelists, Landia Egal and Amaury La Burthe, are part of this initiative.

Amaury La Burthe explains CEPIR’s mission as follows: “to offer real data to producers in the immersive sector”. This objective is embodied by the construction of a calculator that will enable “the carbon emissions of [digital experience producers’] projects to be evaluated”.

The exercise is part of a rigorous approach. Landia Egal points out that their work will be published in a scientific journal.

Beyond the figures, there’s also a philosophy. To encourage reflection, it will be possible to assess a project’s environmental impact before it is created. According to Amaury La Burthe, from now on we must ask ourselves whether the message we wish to convey is worth the energy deployed to do so.

So, should we stop making virtual reality?

“I think immersive has a real future, but maybe not in a very individualized form where the whole planet connects through a headset,” replies Amaury La Burthe.

He rejects the “techno-solutionist” position that says “we’ll find a solution and make more economical helmets anyway”. He adds that those who think this way “are not aware of the order of magnitude and quantity of the changes required”.

Landia Egal agrees. “We’re not here to say that you shouldn’t do VR. However, you have to do it as soberly as possible and for uses you’ve thought about beforehand, not just because you feel like doing it.”

In order to ensure a good preliminary reflection, it is necessary to have a good grasp of the subject of sustainable development. It takes time to learn and better understand what we’re doing,” says Landia Egal. It’s exciting to understand better. It also makes you less anxious. When you better understand the main impacts, the orders of magnitude, you think of creative solutions that are much more relevant.”

A step back for the future

In short, Amaury La Burthe invites the digital community to take a step back. “We don’t care how fast innovations come along. It’s a false race (…) We’re in a crazy mode of over-consumption. We need to take it down a notch.”

As an example, he even proposes a return to a tried-and-tested technology when it comes to immersion: Google Cardboard. This device allowed users to turn their cell phones into inexpensive headsets. “It worked well and added a use to a device, without adding a negative impact”.

A case study to follow

In the coming months, CEPIR will be releasing a number of important publications. In addition to the aforementioned scientific article and carbon monoxide emissions calculator, Amaury La Burthe mentions that “best practice sheets to help producers and studios with eco-production, eco-design and eco-distribution” will also be available.

We’re sure that these tools will find takers among designers concerned about their footprint on the planet. Watch the CEPIR website for their unveiling.

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Avatar photo   David Lamarre

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