(re)imagining the post-anthropocene future
We are mired in a world of increasing climate anxiety and ubiquitous dystopian cynicism. Like many across the world, I watched with despair and horror as world leaders at COP26 this fall fail to provide significant and meaningful goals for countries to reach to minimize climate change . Global leaders also failed to provide mitigations for climate change in areas where impacts are being felt strongly but where they are fewer monetary resources to help, particularly in the Global South.
After attending a workshop on climate futures and non-human stakeholders at CSCW 21 in late October, I began to envision (re)imagine, titled Sealladh in early stages of the project. In this case study, I will discuss the design process for development and future directions for the project.
During this work, I faced two central challenges which I will demonstrate throughout the case study:
1) how to instantiate the idea of creating an application to find new ways of knowing and developing non-
dystopian visions and ideation for climate futures
2) quick iteration in VR with user testing and prototyping
Illustration by Ada Jusic. Found on the web here.
(re)imagine seeks to go beyond current despair and allow users to find hope and potential and plausible ideas for climate futures. It is currently an early stage VR prototype created in Mozilla's A-Frame (version 1.2.0). It consists of two worlds, Beavers as Infrastructure and Forest of Stories.
Beavers as Infrastructure is a forested world where a user can enter and, by means of grabbing a dandelion seed, learn how beavers both see possibility and potential in an environment and what impacts beavers have in their environments.
Currently, this world is an open world, where users are not given any direction as it is less feasible within the A-frame environment. While conducting user testing for Beavers as Infrastructure, I instead served as narrator, taking the user through the environment in a guided fashion with some freedom as done in the story telling portion of the Anne Frank House VR application on the Oculus Quest.
When a user enters Forest of Stories, they are invited to go through the forest and listen to stories from people around the world to learn about the impacts of climate change, cultural perspectives on ecosystems and non-human entities differing from the user's, and potential actions and projects activists are engaged in globally. The trees currently in the prototype are from more well-known climate activists, with trees chosen as best as possible (Sketchfab was the source of the 3D models and many trees sourced from there would not render correctly in A-frame) to reflect the activist's geographical region to reflect the localized nature of the experience of climate change.
Users are also encouraged to add their own story, although this is not yet a feature. Currently, this is only shown as a potential and non-interactive portion of the prototype.
User's first view of Beavers as Infrastructure
Dandelion and information on beavers in the environment
Entering the Forest of Stories
A baobab tree and a kauri tree in the forest
(re)imagine is inspired by a variety of design paradigms including speculative design, pluriversal design, and ontological design. While the goal of imagining and creating positively framed climate futures, implementing this beyond theory and in an engaging manner in a digital form takes work and ideation.
In early stages I looked at many inspirations:, but the two that ended up having the most impact were Dark Matters Labs' Trees as Infrastructure and Superflux's Invocation for Hope. Trees as Infrastructure is in the words of Dark Matter Labs: "It is a mind-shift tool, that supports holistic urban afforestation strategies by shifting the valuing of trees from aesthetic ornaments or cost to valuable assets, accounting (and visually displaying) trees’ multi-point benefits for human and non-human actors" This type of mind-shift is what I am trying to directly port into VR in Beavers as Infrastructure.
The forest in the design for Invocation for Hope provided the inspiration for both forest environments, in particular the self-reflective action (but not the pond) is integrated into Forest of Stories through the experience of shared storytelling.
Diagram image from Trees as Infrastructure
Image from Invocation for Hope
speculative design interviews
I began the design process with (re)imagine with a set of speculative design interviews. During these interviews, I asked each participant to identify a biosphere, a non-human entity within that biosphere and to think through how this entity impacted and was impacted by everything around them. Additionally, the participants were each given one event that impacted the entity they identified and were asked to think through primary, secondary, and tertiary consequences of the event for the entity and the biosphere they identified.
In this early stage, I intended to create a VR application where users could experience the world from the perspective of a non-human entity. While this proved to be infeasible to develop given the time frame, my low level of experience with developing VR technology (discussed more below). Nonetheless, these interviews were invaluable for generating ideas about animals and non-organic elements as infrastructural elements and for the enthusiasm of people about identifying with trees (leading to the ideas for Forest of Stories).
sketching and ideation
After completing the speculative design interviews, I began to sketch out ideas for the application on paper. Based on the work of Alber (2015, 2018), Algers (2018), and Nebeling and Madler (2019), I worked with a backlit tracing board with a 360 drawing template and tracing paper to sketch out 360 equirectangular sketches to ideate environments, interactions, and navigation menus. Additionally, using templates from Kamppari-Miller (2017), I sketched ideas for perspectives for a beaver and sapling in VR.
In the sketches above on the right, you can see a recording menu in a ring of trees and a person standing amid a gallery of cards. These are the early ideations of Forest of Stories. One sketch with idea cards and items became an early version of Beavers as Infrastructure. Also in these sketches are ideas on creating a slider to adjust time perception (top right in the sketches on the right) and early menu ideas.
3D physical prototyping
Based on the process of Nebeling and Madler (2019), I used clay and other materials to create a couple of dioramas. One is based on a speculative interview on the life cycle of a clam on Brigantine Beach in New Jersey, and the other grew out of my interests in beavers and their environments inspired by Stacy Passmore's 2019 article on beavers in the American West. These prototypes are excellent for gaining a sense of how an entire environment will look and feel for a user in VR. I couldn't easily identify how to make this work for a clam (further work and research would be required), but the world of the beaver and forested wetlands were easy to visualize, build, and ideate given materials and the mass of information on beavers and their biospheres.
choosing a prototyping platform
At this point in the design process, I had to choose a prototyping platform. While I looked at some options that were limited in scope such as VR Direct and InstaVR, these relied too heavily on content that I could not generate or acquire legally and allowed for limited interaction. Other excellent VR prototyping tools like MomentXR and Microsoft Marquette were no longer supported or no longer existed (a typical issue in emerging tech fields). Tvori did not operate on a platform I had access to. Unity and Unreal had too steep of a learning curve. Given these issues, I chose to build a prototype on Mozilla's A-Frame WebVR platform.
While I ideated somewhat using Google's TiltBrush and Gravity Sketch on an Oculus Quest 2, I chose to use pre-existing 3D models available on Sketchfab for content in the constructed environments. This cut down on time, and most of the 3D models I chose were free and only one cost any significant amount of money over $10.
digital sketching and lo-fi digital prototyping
Examples of lo-fi prototyping that I found with A-Frame using static 360 equirectangular images made me aware of this potential way of developing a method of lo-fi digital prototyping in WebVR.
Using Sketch360, a tool that was released by Microsoft Garage in 2018 and currently available for Surface and Android devices, I drew a set of 360 equirectangular images to use as a scene in A-Frame with it's <a-sky> tag.
While this use of A-Frame with static images would give a lofi digital prototype, users would have no way to navigate through this world. Using Marvel's Prototype on Paper software as inspiration, I chose to use shape primitives within A-Frame that could be used for clickable interactions and give them a target href for the result of these interactions. This approach allowed me to create a testable lofi prototype that I then was able to use to do an initial round of user testing.
testing the lo-fi digital prototype
I had few restrictions on the users I chose for testing, and simply put out a request on social media for anyone interested in the area of ecological futures to contact me. I chose the first five that were both interested in the topic and had availability that matched my own. All five were based in the United States and were between 34 and 44 years of age. Two of the participants are New Media artists with familiarity with using WebVR, while I had to give the remaining three a brief tutorial on another WebVR site.
The results from this round of user testing were generally positive. I began each test by explaining the concept of the project and asking each user to interpret what they were seeing given that information. The participants were told to talk aloud as they went through the prototype which I then followed up with specific questions on navigation and how well they believed the design reflected the ideas I explained at the beginning of the session.
Participants liked the imaginative approach. The area that was then termed "beaver land" (the original name for Beavers as Infrastructure) was found to be informative, but without interaction, it was hard for participants to get a fuller experience of exploration. All participants were enthusiastic about the early version of Forest of Stories. Much of the deeper navigation within the explore/perspectives area was said to be overly complicated, and there was a lot of confusion about what the area was and what it was supposed to be. Participants found that other parts of the navigation and user flow worked well. Everyone noted that language and images for navigation would be key for user comprehension in navigation.
The ideas about explorations of non-human perspectives and time perception were not possible to prototype in depth at this low of a level of fidelity and the feedback on these ideas was insightful, but indicated the incredible complexity it would take to flesh out these designs. These areas were then abandoned due to being outside the scope of this initial prototype.
high fidelity prototype
After completing this first round of user testing, I began the creation of a high-fidelity prototype with A-Frame. I had to quickly learn A-Frame as I went, and designed the two scenes that became Beavers as Infrastructure and Forest of Stories. I initially built out a deeper navigational structure to give the sense that there would be more than just one infrastructure environment, but this was abandoned after feedback that I should simplify the navigation for the purposes of a prototype.
At an early point in the creation of the high fidelity prototype, I was using text primitives within A-Frame with clickable interaction as a property for navigation. This was not an optimal choice, since the color of the background plane was not controllable, and when I continued to build the prototype, which I had now named (re)imagine to reflect both the need for imagining and reimagining climate futures, I chose to use the Superhands library within A-Frame. Additionally I chose to use the aframe-gui library to create higher quality UI elements throughout the prototype and for the built in audio control panel in the aframe-gui library that I needed for Forest of Stories.
One thing that I had difficulty determining was what to term the environment where users learned about beavers. I had originally called the area of the application "explore", but changed this to "perspectives" after testing the lo-fi digital prototype. Still later in the high-fidelity prototype, I changed this to "experiences". I would change this once again after testing the high fidelity prototype.
Additionally, I began to work on a home menu and an entry and portal to the application. These early efforts were not yet well-developed as I still was discovering the possibilities within A-Frame.
At this point in the process, I added more of a cohesive theme, As noted in the discussion of the prototype above, I used 3D models of dandelion seeds as interactive elements for users in both Beavers as Infrastructure and Forest of Stories. I added a 360 movie with falling dandelion seeds in the portal to give a greater cohesion to the visual design of the application.
I wanted to do a quick round of A/B testing to look at two different 360 settings for the main menu page. Early in the prototyping process, I found an image that I felt conveyed a beautiful setting in an arctic environment with aurora. I also felt the need to have a more consistent design with the falling dandelions as a background in the main menu.
The menu on the left above was the "A" image in the testing while the menu with the falling dandelions on the right was the "B" menu. I collected only six responses, and users indicated that they disliked the cold feeling of "A" versus the testers who received the "B" menu who said it felt consistent with the rest of the design. I went with menu "B" for my final prototype.
speculative and ui testing
In Speculative Everything, Dunne and Raby (2013) discuss how to measure success in a speculative design project: " The project's value is not what it achieves or does but what it is and how it makes people feel, especially if it encourages people to question in an imaginative, troubling, and thoughtful way everydayness and how things could be different." This informed one dimension of my user testing process with the high fidelity prototype. In addition to the two speculative testing processes I will describe below, I also asked about experiences with the quote in the portal, the design with the dandelions, and navigational menu images and language on the main menu page.
The quote was mostly well-received except for one user (who even admitted that as a philosopher whose specialty is in the semantics of language, he always judges these things too harshly). The dandelions in the beginning were not clear semantically to some people but one person noted that they reminded him of Carl Sagan in Cosmos who used a dandelion seed as the inspiration for his “starship of the imagination”.
In the main menu, most people understood the “stories” picture and element somewhat clearly but the picture of a beaver labeled “experiences” was quite unclear. As a result of this, I changed the label on the menu element to “infrastructure”. While this is possibly also unclear, it is the most clarifying label I have found as of yet.
One observation I noted during the testing process is that age correlated strongly with moving through the environments. The youngest user in their 20s moved rapidly and asked me no questions about how it worked. The second youngest user in their 30s asked me one question but quickly picked up the little they didn’t intuitively grasp. The next youngest user in their early 40s had a few issues, but apparently reminded himself that this was like his child’s Minecraft game. The two oldest users, however, had difficulty with navigation, even after I explained several times how it worked. They did manage to grasp it well-enough to complete the experience, but it was a learning moment for both of them. VR environments, computer gaming, and modern gaming console design obviously gave needed experience to the ability to navigate within the current prototype design.
For the testing on Beavers as Infrastructure, I utilized the long loading time for the dense forest imagery and asked the users to imagine a scenario where they were leading a cross-disciplinary team to work on preventing the devastating forest fires that had wreaked havoc in the Pacific Northwest during the last several years and to also work on improving the status of endangered salmon species. I took notes of their ideas, and then after they had navigated through the environment and learned about how beavers impact their environment, I asked them to revisit their ideas and see what they would do differently.
During their experience of Beavers as Infrastructure, several people noted that the forest was too dark to see the dandelion seeds clearly to grab them. For future prototypes and work, I will change the forest environment and lighten it, but for current deadlines on the prototype, such change is not possible. The other excellent suggestion was to create a story and guided experience for Beavers as Infrastructure rather than doing it myself.
To measure the impact of Beavers as Infrastructure, I looked at the before and after stories of my proposed scenario described above. One user heavily focused on communication strategies, and so did not really change their solution afterwards as it had a different focus. Three users specifically said they would utilize beavers in ways they hadn’t thought of before. One user said that he might try to utilize beavers by ensuring their habitat was protected, but he was highly dubious of any human intervention period in wilderness environments. While this is only a small sample, and it is possibly an imperfect test, it does show some change in how people can perceive the world when information is presented from a different perspective, that of how non-humans and non-human created material and networks can serve as impactful and useful in an environment as well.
To test Forest of Stories, I asked the participants to describe their thoughts and feelings after exploring the forest and listening to the stories.
The follow up questions for Forest of Stories showed a strong impact. Everyone had strong feelings about how the stories of climate devastation and the view of younger people had impacted them during the few minutes of listening to the stories. One participant began to cry as they described their horror at what was happening and how they often felt powerless to change it but that these stories presented a hopeful view that people were going to try anyway. The two oldest participants, at 49 and 53, said it was an important note that all of the activists they listened to were young and that the members of Generation Z were inspiring leaders in this space that the world should keep listening to, and that listening to their voices inspired hope as well as the despair they often felt when contemplating climate change. While again, this is a small sample size, the shared human experience of storytelling and sharing can lead to a shared future of hope as the participants here described feeling after the experience, giving weight to (re)imagine as a potential avenue for creating hope, paths, and ways of knowing for new climate futures.
To finish this prototype phase for (re)imagine, I would like to solve the problem of the physics module that did not work well with the current prototype, although this issue could wait until deployment to a better platform. Also, the current prototype is not fully functional for a headset and creating a prototype that would be testable in a headset would be the next logical step for testing and development.
The next step for (re)imagine would then be to move it into a more stable VR platform, either Unreal or Unity. Once this is accomplished, adding more infrastructure learning experiences beyond the beaver one currently prototyped, and sourced from the early speculative interviews. Unreal and Unity are both more stable than A-Frame for true VR user interactivity, so dealing with many of the testing participants commentary on difficulty in seeing the dandelion seeds and the lo-fi approach to signs that currently exists in the prototype will be addressed as well. The physics component which did not work well with the existing components in the prototype would also be added to give it a more true feeling of reality as users would no longer be able to “walk” through objects.
Once a move onto Unity or Unreal is accomplished, testing out ideas such as described above would be easier within a headset platform than anything currently with WebVR. Adding more experiences of “X as infrastructure” (such as clams), and gathering more personal stories to create a larger forest are among these key additions. Experimenting with the perspective and temporal ideas that require a greater length of time than I had during this project are also an avenue I intend to pursue. Instantiating the ideas would take a great deal of effort, but my current plans are to develop this in my spare time collaborating with the EmpressVR group based in the UK and applying for funding to turn this prototype into a working (virtual) reality.
To visit and explore (re)imagine for yourself, please visit the prototype at https://luxzia.github.io
Michael C. Albers. 2018. Simple low-fidelity VR prototyping: Practical how-to advice. https://blog.prototypr.io/https-medium-com-michael-c-albers-simple-low-fidelity-vr-prototyping-practical-how-to-advice-a976bd0cdcbf
Mike Alger. 2015. Visual design methods for virtual reality. https://aperturesciencellc.com/vr/VisualDesignMethodsforVR_MikeAlger.pdf
Mike Alger. 2018. How we design for VR. Presentation given at the MCE Conference in 2018 in Warsaw. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49sm52fG0dw
Saara Kamppari-Miller. 2017. VR paper prototyping. Prototypr. https://blog.prototypr.io/vr-paper-prototyping-9e1cab6a75f3
Michael Nebeling and Katy Madler. 2019. 360proto: Making interactive virtual reality & augmented reality prototypes from paper. In Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1-13.
Stacy Passmore. 2019. Landscape with beavers. Places Journal.
Story frames and consequence wheels from speculative design interviews
Backlit board with 360 equirectangular template; 360 and menu sketches; perspective sketches for beaver and sapling
Beaver biosphere diorama (left) made with clay, painter's tape, model trees, and reindeer moss. Clam diorama (right) made with sand and clay
Lofi digital prototype - the project is still termed Sealladh here.
Results from lo-fi user testing
Early navigational menus in the lo-fi prototype
Early portal and main menu pages in the high fidelity prototype
(re)imagine portal page
main menu with static image (left) and main menu with falling dandelions (right)
results from user testing with high-fidelity prototype
a clip from an experience in Beavers as Infrastructure
results from speculative testing on Beavers as Infrastructure
a clip of an experience from Forest of Stories