I'm standing in the middle of a pig shed. To my left and right, I see row after row of tightly packed sows and their squealing piglets. The building is a sorry sight - hard, featureless, sometimes barely visible in the dim light. I want to leave, except I'm not actually "there". Welcome to the curious world of virtual reality.
Billions of pounds are being invested in virtual reality (or VR) technology. Behind the complex science and gadgetry, there's a fairly simple concept - a specially designed headset that allows the user to experience a 360-degree virtual world. And it's not just for gaming. VR can bring complex and remote issues - such as factory farming - to life, making them as real as possible without having to be there for real.
One widely reported example of this is Amnesty bringing the civil war in Syria to the UK high street, using VR to give UK shoppers an experience of life in the war-torn country. The effects were tangible - Amnesty reported increased engagement with the issue, with some more likely to donate as a result. Despite being a one-off example, the results are interesting; VR may be a useful tool to deepen public engagement and boost action on some of the world's most pressing challenges.
My VR experience with the pigs was created by another NGO to highlight poor conditions on some of the most intensive farming operations. Could it be the start of a broader trend for immersive experiences that bring you closer to your food?
Time and time again, public opinion polls suggest that people care deeply about farm animals, but this positive attitude doesn't necessarily translate into action; there is still a market for meat, milk and eggs that have been produced using methods that cause huge animal suffering. There are many reasons for this gap, such as a lack of information, misleading labelling and, perhaps the most significant challenge; most of us are disconnected from the realities of food production.
A VR experience could certainly help to bridge this gap, giving you an animal--eye view of life on the farm. Take a chicken, for example - this amazing animal is the most farmed land animal on the planet but it's often lost in a "sea of white" alongside the thousands of other chickens that live in the same shed. You could use VR to, let people see what it's like to spend your whole life crammed into a shed without any natural light or things to do. And it's not just about the dark side of farming of course - you could use VR to show what better farms look and feel like.
The use of VR to raise awareness of issues such as farm animal protection is not without its challenges. During my pig VR experience, some people had to remove the headset after a few minutes, finding the video too disturbing to watch. There's also an assumption that these experiences actually change attitudes or behaviours - sadly, that's not always the case, and there's a risk that you might end up preaching to the converted.
And then there's the argument that it's not as realistic as first thought - you're still only getting sight and sound at the moment but what about touch or smell?
So VR is unlikely to be a silver bullet for our cause. But it could be a really useful tool to bring the lives of the animals we farm to life. VR has already come a long way in just a few years, and if the costs come down as predicted then you'll likely be seeing a lot more of it in years to come. We'll be watching with interest.
And of course futuristic digital technology isn't the only tool being used to improve farm animal welfare - read about the work World Animal Protection is currently doing to protect billions of farm animals.
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