The virtual reality experience, Ripple: the unintended life of plastics in the sea, is now viewable at https://rippleplastic.com/. Featuring the photography of artist and conservationist Mandy Barker, the experience immerses viewers into a galaxy of garbage, to show how ubiquitous, insidious and long-lasting plastic can be in our world. 

For years, Barker, a UK photographer, traveled the world recovering marine debris from beaches. The photographs she creates with these retrieved items are evocative: a pink sandal popping against a dark background, a tangle of fishing line resembling a bird’s nest. The collections are stunning but ominous. They cry out to be experienced in virtual reality. 

In April of 2018, a team of eight Stanford University students, under the guidance of Professor Geri Migielicz, joined together to create this experience. Barker was supportive of the project from the beginning, excited at the prospect of her work taking on new life and reaching more people through this immersive medium. Barker supplied original files for four of her composite photographs for the project.

The project became a labor of love for Dylan Freedman, who graduated in 2018 from Stanford’s Department of Communication Graduate Program in Journalism. Freedman spent the past year refining techniques to bring the experience to life in Web.VR, a Javascript API that supports virtual reality. 

This project was written in A-Frame, a web framework from Mozilla that uses Web.VR, to bring virtual reality to any web device, including laptops, phones, and virtual reality headsets, including Google Cardboard. 

“It will be really exciting to see how this new format delivers and connects with people both in the museum and at home on their personal devices,” says Freedman.

Besides designing the experience, Freedman also produced and composed original music for the VR experience.

“Global pollution is one of the largest man-made problems of our time. To be able to report on this issue using new technology and bring to life the stunning visuals of Mandy Barker’s art is a one-of-a-kind journalistic opportunity,” says Freedman. “I hope this experience will not only raise awareness about the worldwide problem of plastic ocean debris but also highlight a new medium for journalists to tackle future issues.”

Other students assisted in “hackathons,” putting the images through Adobe Photoshop, then Blender, a 3D computer graphics software. The team also researched and wrote a script, and recorded narration to guide viewers through the experience. 

The content is available for free at (https://rippleplastic.com/). Additional content and context for this project can be viewed on Peninsula Press and Medium.

Barker believes it is crucial for this art to be firmly grounded in the reality of marine plastics. The images themselves are beautiful, almost otherworldly, but the problem of plastic waste is real, unavoidable and very much a part of our world. 

Barker says the virtual reality experience will help viewers fully engage with her work. 

“To be fully immersed and focused on the plastic issue, to see recovered objects and pieces of plastic come to ‘life’ floating by and enjoyed alongside music and spoken information educates and encourages the viewer to become involved in an extraordinary way, and in a way that a 2-dimensional photograph perhaps is not able to do,” says Barker. 

Within the experience, viewers learn how long it takes for items to decompose — it might take 600 years for a discarded fishline to break down while a plastic toy could take thousands of years. The virtual reality experience ends with the locations where Barker collected the plastic objects and the location of the Pacific plastic gyre, a large area in the ocean littered with plastic debris.

The team hopes the experience will spur individuals to take the problem of plastic more seriously.  It is important not only to understand but to see and feel the fate of all the items we throw away. We may spend ten minutes drinking from a plastic water bottle, but it could live on in the ocean for eternity, claiming the lives of marine creatures along the way. 

It might be difficult for someone in a landlocked region to see the connection between that plastic water bottle with the health of the world’s oceans, despite warnings from conservation groups and exposés from National Geographic. The experience is viewable to anyone and anywhere. It will whisk viewers away from the consumer-driven world, in which plastic is a staple, to exist for a few minutes in an ocean of discarded plastic. 

The virtual reality experience will be part of the Our Plastic Ocean, an Impressions Gallery exhibition, which launched this summer and will tour around the UK through 2020.