Can a Virtual Hot Shower Help Shorten Your Real One?

September 27, 2013 | Water in the West | Insights

Imagine that you are taking a long hot shower. While washing, you look out the window, where you see a woman, facing you, with a pile of coal. She is slowly and dejectedly eating from this coal pile, one black nugget at a time. Occasionally, she gags.  Your stomach churns.  Welcome to “immersive virtual reality.”

This woman is your avatar in a virtual reality simulation at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which aims to create experiences using cohesive sights, sounds, and sensations that can be carried back into the real world for environmental gains, long after the virtual reality goggles come off.

According to its founder, Jeremy Bailenson, this is one of the best virtual reality labs in the world.  Some colleagues and I had the pleasure of touring the lab last month, learning first-hand how potent of a punch an immersive virtual reality experience can pack.

The hot shower simulation, for instance, makes it viscerally clear that hot water comes with an energy cost.  It takes roughly the amount of energy contained in one piece of coal to provide you with 15 seconds of your hot shower.  As the hot water flows, your avatar continues to eat coal. 

It is highly uncomfortable, even for those of us watching in the audience.

I asked a colleague, Amanda, who tried the hot shower simulation, whether the experience has changed her behavior in any way, one month since the virtual reality experience.  She believes it has.  Since then, turning the knob for the shower will sometimes act as a trigger, taking her back to the virtual experience. But has it actually shortened her shower? Amanda says she is more aware, and she never took long showers anyway.  But she still recalls the potency of the avatar’s stare. 

It is clear that virtual reality is an influential tool with potential to affect real-life behaviors. The pioneering work of Jeremy’s lab to bring this emerging technology to resources conservation is an exciting development for the water field, where innovative technologies and behavioral science can be brought to bear on a host of challenges.  Imagine the potential of virtual reality to help people overcome their fears and perceptions about potable reuse of wastewater!

Take a tour of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford here: