Gaia

VR and embodied cognition will convince the viewer that the Earth is their body. 4.5 billion years go by in 4.5 minutes.

We show the evolution of your home from primordial ooze before we had an atmosphere, to the explosion of life, and eventually the devastation caused by humanity.

At the University of Barcelona there is a virtual reality experience that convinces people they have a different body. You step into VR and see that you're standing in a virtual room. There's a mirror in the room, and you see a person looking back at you. You move your arms in the real world, and they move the exact same way in your virtual room. This visual-motor synchronicity between how you move and what you see confuses your brain for a moment, and then it does something wild: it believes that your virtual body is your actual body. According to research in Embodied Cognition, it takes about two minutes for your brain to make the adjustment.

But the effects last much longer. White people put into dark-skinned bodies have been shown to be less implicitly racist at least a week after the simple experience. Men who embody women have lower rates of domestic abuse. It seems there is a deep, personal level of empathy gained from living in someone else's skin, even for just a few minutes.

Which made me think: as humanity continues its brutal conquest of the natural world, could I convince people that they are the earth? Could they gain a deep empathy for our planet as a fragile, living system that they are intimately similar to and connected with? Would they change their behavior in real life after experiencing such an epiphany?

The story is simple, wordless, and savage. You slip on a headset and are floating in a bright, plasma-filled space. Gradually your body comes together from dust floating around you. Now you have form: legs, arms, a torso. Volcanoes erupt on your shoulders and chest, spitting sulfur into the air around you and creating an atmosphere that shifts from orange to blue as more nitrogen and oxygen are released. Clouds rain water down on your rocky skin and oceans form. And suddenly, you notice life. Kelp grows in the water and mosses on land. Tiny wiggling fish fill your oceans. Some of them scamper out onto dry soil and sprout legs. Forests sprout up on your forearms. A desert grows on your right shoulder, a mountain range on your left. Ecosystems develop and flourish; the animal kingdom evolves and branches. You look down at your beautiful, vibrant body; you move your left hand up close to your head to inspect the Antarctic ice cap growing on it and the tiny penguins jumping off into the ocean.

And then one of the animals starts a fire. And you realize it's a human. And in the blink of an eye, humanity progresses from hunting and gathering to where we are today. Bulldozers like scarab beetles crawl over your stomach digging out your flesh to mine; factories are built on your shoulders spewing black smoke into your eyes; mountains are blown up; the river on your leg is dammed and dried; forests are slashed and burned; the ocean on your sidebody becomes choked with gyres of plastic. The sky around you turns grey, then yellow. The desert on your shoulder spreads and spreads. The ice cap on your left hand melts away entirely, and the penguins disappear.

And then the humans disappear too. Their bulldozers rust; their factories crumble. In this moment of stillness, your perspective drifts backwards and out -- your virtual body's arms and legs still moves when you move, but the out of body experience lets you see your denuded planetary body floating in space, vulnerable, alone. You watch your body float further and further away into the vast black void of space.

Work in progress.

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