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How This Group of Tree Huggers is Using VR to Inspire Conservation

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Marshmallow Laser Feast wants you to hug a tree in VR.

Marshmallow Laser Feast and its merry band of creators have been using VR to alter states and twist senses in meaningful ways for some time now—and their latest project, Treehugger: Wawona, is no exception.

Built in an effort to connect humans with nature and encourage them to consider the future of these natural giants in the face of a global climate crisis, the experience uses real Sequoia tree scans to show all of the things trees do for our environment that we don’t normally get to see.

Treehugger: Wawona, Marshmallow Laser Feast

It starts with popping on an HTC Vive headset and placing your head into a tree knot installation to fully transport yourself into the world inside a Giant Sequoia. The longer you hug the tree, the faster time accelerates, revealing its processes and bringing it to life.

As you drift through the abstract visualization, you follow a single drop of water as it travels from its roots to the top of it’s branches during transportation.

“It’s the sun sucking up the water like a straw,” explained MLF Founder and Director Barney Steel. “It’s this heartbeat that draws you up. As you get higher in the tree you can see the air flow and water particles in the air.”

The project was built to allow exploration of the world beyond our senses, expanding perceptions to connect us to things we don’t normally see.

Treehugger: Wawona, Marshmallow Laser Feast

“The giant sequoia is naturally seductive and the experience of standing beneath one is deeply moving,” said Ersinhan Ersin, MLF’s Creative Director. Because we tend to protect what we fall in love with, the ultimate hope with this project is that undergoing such a deep VR experience will nudge people away from consumerism towards conservation.”

I don’t know many people who think up intricate passion projects the way MLF does, but they are as detailed and methodical about their approach as they are ambitious and altruistic.

These guys road-tripped around the US seeking out the oldest and greatest trees so they could scan them for the experience.

Treehugger: Wawona, Marshmallow Laser Feast

They collaborated with leading researchers at London’s Natural History Museum and Salford University to use a combination of LIDAR, white light, and CT scanning to create highly detailed textures that distort a viewer’s usual sense of space and time to make the invisible visible.

They also used ultra hi-spec graphics cards from PNY Technologies to enable computationally heavy real-time simulations. The end result creates a dynamic environment with interactive particles that allow audiences to sense their presence within the space.

Treehugger: Wawona, Marshmallow Laser Feast

As this project evolves they hope to include breath sensors to further visualize the symbiotic relationship we have with trees. As the tree breathes out, you breathe in, watching the oxygen coming from it’s system into your metabolism and steering you to breathe slower, adding to the trippyness of the experience.

Eventually they plan to get as detailed as showing photosynthesis in a pine needle.

So what’s next? The ambition is to build much bigger worlds with these types of intricate layers inside of them. After they are done touring with this first chapter of Treehugger: Wawona, MLF will be raising funds to turn it into a proper game where audiences can explore a natural landscape through the energy flows of root systems and currents.

They’re the coolest team of nature conservationists we know.

Treehugger: Wawona, Marshmallow Laser Feast

Treehugger premiered in London’s Southbank for the Southbank Centre Winter Festival, and we’re crossing our fingers we’ll get to see it at Sundance next month.

It was commissioned by the Cinekid Foundation, STRP, Southbank Centre and Migrations. After the Southbank Centre Winter Festival, it will be found at the STRP Biennial in Eindhoven from March 20-27, and at Migrations in Wales from April through June 2017.

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About the Scout

Carly Chevalier

Carly is an Editor and the unofficial guinea pig of most experiments at VRScout. Follow her on Twitter @thecarlybird or say hello in natural reality.

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