I am standing in the middle a pig shed. I can see rows upon rows of tightly packed sows with their screaming piglets to my right and left.
It is hard to see the features of this building, which can sometimes be barely visible in dim lighting. I want to go, but I don’t actually feel like I am “there”. Welcome to virtual reality, the strange world.
Virtualization is on the rise
Virtual reality, or VR, is widely considered to be the next big thing. There are billions of dollars being invested in this technology. The simple idea behind all the science and gadgetry is that a headset allows users to experience a virtual 360-degree world. Your viewpoint changes as you move your head to see the surrounding environment.
Gaming is not the only thing you should do
While immersive computer games are a market that is obvious, there are huge opportunities in other sectors like education and healthcare. Then there is the one that interests me the most – using VR to help animals welfare. It’s possible to make complex and remote issues, such as farming, as real as possible without actually being there.
Already, VR is being used to bring causes to life. Amnesty, which brought the civil war in Syria onto the UK’s high streets, used VR to allow UK shoppers to experience life in the war-torn nation. This is a widely reported example. Amnesty saw tangible results. They reported increased interest in the issue and more people were willing to donate. Although this is a single case, these results are intriguing. VR could be used to increase public engagement and encourage action on the most pressing issues facing the world.
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Bring the farm to the people
This brings me back again to the VR experience I had with the pigs. It was created by another NGO to highlight poor conditions in intensive farming operations. This could be the beginning of an even wider trend in immersive experiences that bring you closer with your food.
Public opinion polls consistently show that people care deeply for farm animals. Take the Eurobarometer 2016 survey by the European Commission, which shows that 94% believe protecting farm animals is an important issue. This positive attitude does not necessarily translate into action. There is still a large market for meat, eggs, and milk that are produced in ways that cause great animal suffering. This could be due to a variety of reasons, including a lack information or misleading labelling. However, the biggest challenge may be our “farm–to-fork” disconnect. Most people don’t know how their food is made.
The VR experience can help reduce the disconnect between animal suffering and humankind. It gives you an animal-eye perspective of farm life. Consider a chicken as an example. This amazing animal is farmed on the planet and yet it’s often overlooked in the “sea” of white alongside thousands of chickens in the same shed. The VR technology could be used to tell the story about a chicken. It would allow people to see how it feels to live in a shed with no natural light and little to do.
It’s not all about the negative side of farming. VR could be used to show better farms, although a visit to a farm would be more powerful. ).
This free-range organic farm in Brazil offers hens up to five times the space as caged animals.
What’s the future of VR?
It is not easy to use VR to raise awareness about issues like farm animal protection. Some people found the VR experience with pigs too disturbing and had to take the headset off after only a few minutes. It is also assumed that these experiences will change attitudes and behaviours. Unfortunately, this is not always true. You might even end up preaching to the converted.
The technology is the final thing. At the moment, the most expensive headsets can be very costly. The intimacy that creates such an immersive experience makes it difficult to use the headset to communicate with multiple people at once. Users have reported motion sickness. This means that there might be some teething issues that need to be addressed. The argument is that you are still only seeing and hearing sound, so it may not be as realistic as people think. But what about touch and smell?
VR is not likely to be the solution. It could still be a useful tool in bringing the lives of animals to life. VR has made great strides in the last few years. If costs drop as predicted, then we’ll probably see more VR in the years ahead. We will be keeping an eye on it.
Future-oriented digital technology is not the only tool used to improve farm animal welfare. Read about our current work to save billions of farm animals.