Assessing an ecosystem's beauty using virtual reality

The combined use of virtual reality (VR) and statistical modelling is helping QUT researchers to assess the aesthetic values of remote ecosystems that are difficult or expensive to physically access.

Nature’s beauty benefits us by providing psychological satisfaction and well being, however as ecosystems are threatened by global degradation, this benefit to humans may soon be lost. How people perceive natural beauty is subjective and difficult to quantify, which limits the effectiveness of traditional approaches to surveying ecosystem aesthetics along with other ecosystem health monitoring programs.

QUT researchers have developed a new methodology to quantify aesthetic indicators based on people’s perceptions of the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef. This involved using VR headsets and 360-degree images to show five different parts of reef to members of the general public, marine scientists and divers and asking participants questions about what they could and couldn’t see and which parts of the reef they found visually appealing. This allowed researchers to collect a new type of data on how people perceive the beauty of the reef, compared to the actual health of the reef, which can be quite different. Overexposure to photographs of visually striking coral reefs can lead to unrealistic expectations about what a coral reef should look like. For example, corals displaying bright fluorescent colours can be a signal showing the early stages of bleaching.

The aesthetic study was part of a larger project called Virtual Reef Diver, which is an online platform for citizen scientists, recreational divers and the public to classify existing images and upload their images or footage of the reef to be geo-located within a map of a digital reef.

Using VR technologies will help engage people in educational and environmental outreach opportunities for coral reefs, and could also be relevant for other environmental conservation or tourism environments such as forests, jungles or beaches.


Chief Investigators

Using VR to see and measure the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef