Back in 1845, Walden Pond taught American philosopher Henry David Thoreau the value of life off the grid. To reclaim ourselves, he concluded, a person must disconnect from society. These days, plugging into the metaverse is the opposite of disconnecting. But can a virtual nature retreat offer some psychological comforts of its own — particularly for those who don’t have the luxury of living near a sweeping emerald forest?
That was the question behind a project organized during June’s Milan Design Week by fashion and design institute Raffles Milano and Italian recycling group Rilegno. Using virtual reality headsets, “Walden: A Virtual Journey” transported visitors to a digital replica of the Massachusetts site where Thoreau once spent two years living in near isolation.
“Nature is a big mystery to people, especially for those who live in cities like Milan,” says Valentina Grilli, who teaches sketching and painting techniques at Raffles Milano and created the project’s visuals. “This tapped into that mystery.” Special software allowed guests to walk through the forest, but also to glide over it like a bird taking flight. “Immersing ourselves, even virtually, helps us to realize that we are part of something bigger,” Grilli says.
There are already signs that the so-called natureverse could someday have an even deeper impact on our well-being. Earlier this year, Animal Crossing: New Horizons became Japan’s bestselling video game of all time. Throughout the pandemic, much of the world found refuge in its escapist gameplay, which allows players to walk around, plant trees or just admire the sunset, all on a lush island oasis. Meanwhile, Swiss researchers have found that ICU patients exposed to VR nature simulations experienced lower blood pressure and heart rates.
But as earth’s resources are depleted, are soothing pixelated landscapes just an idyllic distraction? Environmental analysts already worry that the data centres required by the metaverse could lead to an influx of greenhouse gas emissions.
For its part, the virtual Walden project also wanted to get people thinking about safeguarding our real-life forests. The exhibition design balanced its digital component with fresh foliage and a gallery floor covered in sticks to recreate the physical sensation of a walk in the woods. “Hopefully, an experience like this could stimulate someone to rediscover the urgency of protecting our natural world,” Grilli says.
Thoreau once wrote that we can never have enough of nature. The challenge now is making sure that virtual greenery doesn’t come at the cost of our physical environment.
A virtual reality exhibition in Milan reimagines lakes and trees in pixels and code, kicking off a new era of environmental studies.