Barcelona Flooded by Climate Change. Reflections following the closure of The Zone of Hope

The Zone of Hope, the entertaining virtual reality attraction with climate change on Earth as its central theme, has closed its doors after a debut that lasted more than a year. Did this experience offer entertainment and new knowledge? Was it an exhibition or a theme park? What impression has it made on the public? In this post we will explore this experience from the inside, and together with a group of students we interviewed, we will reflect on the importance of virtual reality in culture and society.

The zone of hope is a cultural experience whose objective was to show the consequences of the negative impact of climate change on the environment, which will come to pass in the future, specifically in the city of Barcelona.

The location chosen to present the experience was more than right: in the center of Barcelona, a few minutes from Plaza de Catalunya and very close to the main Gothic cathedral. However, the entrance and signage were quite unnoticed and seemed to hide in a small courtyard of a medieval castle. Like many other buildings in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, the building that housed the experience is characterized by spans of small windows, very thick walls and small surface enclosures.

The entrance to the Zone of Hope experience. Source: Irina Grevtsova

The experience and the script

When entering the building all personal items had to be left at the door, and during the visit it was forbidden to take photos. The young staff kindly greeted the visitors and accompanied the group, composed of a maximum of four people, to a small room in which the participants received the first task: enter personal data (name and email) on a touch screen. Then, on a screen located at the top of the room, an animated video was projected explaining the rules of behavior to follow during the visit, such as not pushing others, jumping, or taking off the equipment on their own. If visitors were to feel bad, they should call Violeta by raising his/her hand. The instructions were given quickly, without the possibility of asking questions such as, for example, who is Violeta?

After the video, visitors were sent to another room where there were symbols on the ground that indicated the positions that the four participants should occupy. At the same time, four supervisors entered the room whose task was to put a special suit on each of the participants. The equipment for the virtual experience consisted of a laptop stored in a backpack, which weighed approximately 2 kilos, wearable devices that were fixed on the wrists and ankles, headphones, and of course, 3D glasses.

A diversity of thoughts crossed my mind at that moment. I felt involved in the role of an astronaut who was preparing for the launch to the Moon. The most exciting moment was when I had to wear 3D glasses. I realized that by putting them on, I would lose connection with the real world, and this caused me some unpleasant feelings. However, after a while, I got used to my new state and the feeling of discomfort disappeared.

The first thing I saw through the virtual reality glasses was a virtual room very similar to the real one. The dimensions of the enclosure, the lighting, the furniture and the objects were recreated very accurately. Then I saw my hands with white gloves and, near me, my two companions who, like me, were dressed in elegant white scuba-suits. The new clothes gave our bodies an elegant athletic appearance. Our faces were hidden under the helmets and we could only recognize each other by the color of the lights in our suits. In the end, they gave us soft headphones that immersed us in the silence of the virtual world and gave us a few minutes to get used to our new look.

The experience began with the projection of a video with images of the latest news about catastrophes that occurred on Earth as a result of global warming. The story was accompanied by the story of the life of a young woman named Violeta. It portrayed that at the time of the video recording she was a small girl. She was seen playing nonchalantly and holding parties surrounded by her family when suddenly, by the headphones we were warned that we were going to make a trip to her future, in which we would see what will happen if humanity does not take measures against the warming of the planet.

A virtual door appeared on the right and we were invited to enter. The most exciting moment was crossing the threshold. Without hurry, one after another, we reached an ice cave. Upon entering, I immediately felt the change in temperature, the cold and the silence. Violeta who, like us, was wearing a diving suit, was waiting for us at a viewpoint overlooking the ocean. She waited for us to enter and began to tell her story: I am 20 years old and I am a scientific collaborator who participates in research on the melting of glaciers. Around we saw glaciers and we heard huge icebergs breaking and falling into the ocean.

Violeta told us to touch the walls. To the touch they were cold and wet, like ice. She explained that in the last 20 years there has been global warming and this has led to the glaciers melting. The white bear, which we could see in the distance, is one of the last species that have survived.

Suddenly, we heard an acoustic signal informing of the need for evacuation. We had to leave the viewpoint. Violeta told us about an upcoming flood and, together with her, we had to tighten a series of nuts to prevent water from entering the compartment in which we found ourselves.

The next scene of our trip was on the upper terrace of a high-rise building, located in the Plaza de España of Barcelona, which was completely flooded. All its adjacent streets were under the surface of the waters and, instead of cars, boats and skiffs circulated. Before our eyes a somber city was revealed, submerged in darkness, with images reminiscent of Blade Runner. Violeta said that in 2068 the incessant torrential rains had become a catastrophe for most of the planet. Only the inhabitants of the northern hemisphere could enjoy the sun.

The next stop was in 2093. This time we were in a desert and we felt its dry and warm air. Violeta suggested we take shelter from the heat in the scientific laboratory where she worked. To do that, we had to get on a cargo elevator. When it started, it began to make a lot of noise and tremble and we feel, with some fear, the vibrations. Through a huge window, the desert could be seen, while Violeta said that before it had been one of the most beautiful natural parks in Catalonia. When we touched the virtual window, we saw a green park with a water reservoir projected from the memories of her childhood. At the end of the tour, Violeta told us that she felt very tired, because of the heat, and wanted to be alone. We exited the laboratory leaving her panting, sitting in a chair, and we moved on to a new space that turned out to be the starting place. This is how our virtual trip to the future ended.

They stripped us of all the devices and invited us to a room with a huge screen. A short documentary, in which well-known contemporary spiritual leaders, political personalities and cultural leaders appeared, and called on us to reflect on the consequences of our doings and to take action.

After watching the documentary, we were invited to participate in a survey. For this, off of several screens, each participant had to choose their photograph which was taken previously in the first room, and answer questions about their subsequent impressions and intentions in relation to the protection of the environment. The survey, once filled out, was sent to their email address.

We carried out a small experiment

To find out what the public thinks of the experience, especially the young generation who is well acquainted with technologies and virtual games, we conducted a small experiment with the students of interior design of the LCI of Barcelona.

We booked tickets in advance and formed 2 groups. The experiment took place on a Friday afternoon. Interestingly, it turned out that only a few people in the group were familiar with virtual reality. For most, it was the first encounter with it.

Conducting the surveys about the Zone of hope experience. Source: Irina Grevtsova

What was their reaction?

Many agreed that the experience was short. From their point of view, the experience brought awareness of the problem, however, the information provided was not enough, since everyone is very familiar with the subject, having studied it in depth at school.

Among the disadvantages, the discomfort of the wearables stood out, the poor quality of the video (some thought it was often blurred) and the disengagement with the virtual body. Everyone agreed that the activation of the senses and the feeling of presence were the most important part of the visit, which made the experience very realistic. Everyone said they would recommend this experience to family and friends for its novelty. They believe that this experience would be especially useful for people who don’t know anything about the situation and are not aware of the problem.

Reflection

Without a doubt, the main value of this type of virtual reality is the tactile experience. It was made possible by the use of the latest technical advances, including the technologies of the Hyper Reality Experience.

The possibility of moving and living the group experience in real time, feeling the temperature change, the vibrations of the cargo elevator, the cold of the walls and, in general, the involvement of the participants in everything that happens, greatly intensified the effect of immersion bringing it closer to that of a real experience. If visitors had seen the video sitting in chairs and headphones, they would have had the simple impression of watching a movie.

Virtual reality demonstrates its great potential for use for educational and entertainment purposes. The active involvement of the participants has been recognized as an important element of the educational process. The three-dimensional interactive environment created by the VR makes it easy to understand complicated issues.

However, as the results of the surveys show, at the moment even the formats of the highest end virtual hyper-reality are imperfect: the equipment is bulky, the quality of the images and the immersion they create is not good enough, and the duration of the experience is very short, possibly because of possible unpleasant side effects.

The story is built on the basis of the well-known scientific data of climate change, applied to the heart of Barcelona. But a more detailed storytelling, with curious facts and more depth and content approach is missing.

Another important disadvantage lies in the initial predominance of screens that virtually nullify human interaction. In this experience, the functions of the monitors were limited to providing services and giving instructions and it was the technologies that told stories. I missed human interaction, places to rest from the screens, conversation, discussion of what was seen and the exchange of opinions.

Today the interest in virtual reality is growing significantly and is used in many areas, from educational and cultural exhibitions, to those of leisure, sports and recreation. The use of virtual reality for recreational purposes has become a recurring practice throughout the world. New formats are emerging every time. One of the most incredible examples of the use of virtual reality in attractions is the virtual reality theme park in Dubai. There, virtual games of all types are available: in group or individual, with or without a headset. The entire park is populated exclusively with machines and virtual reality devices with huge queues of people to access them.

Virtual Reality Theme Park, Dubai. Source: Irina Grevtsova

How can we create a virtual experience with the lightest-weight equipment? How can we find the balance between the human and the technological? These are some of the challenges facing virtual reality today.