Tree is a VR installation directed by Milica Zec and Winslow Porter that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2017 New Frontier Program, in which the theme was climate change. This virtual experience transforms participants into a rainforest tree. The experience begins with participants planting a real seed given to them by one of the Tree‘s team members. Once in VR—over the duration of eight minutes—with their arms as the branches and their body as the trunk, they experience the tree’s growth from a seedling to its fullest form and witness its fate firsthand.
Tree is an experiment of an embodied way of storytelling. Unlike traditional mediums that only have visuals and sounds, Tree delivers a vivid body illusion of embodying a non-human life form. This experience is provided by multisensory integration of sight, hearing, smell and touch (vibration, heating, and wind) to unlock a higher level of realism. These immersive elements help participants to suspend their disbelief, accept the otherwise unrealistic aspects of this simulation, and fully submit to their momentary new world.
Being an experiential medium, this VR installation broadens the understanding of deforestation beyond its informative dimension creating a deeper level of engagement by facilitating embodied cognition about one of the primary contributors to climate change. While Tree starts off as a calm, peaceful, and untroubled aesthetic experience, towards the end the participants’ point of view is filled with smoke and fire. At that very moment, the first person ‘tree’ perspective changes into a third person perspective overlooking a huge Amazon rainforest wildfire. As research on ecocide shows, “the fires in the Amazon are often started intentionally by illegal land grabbers burning forests to clear land for other uses, such as cattle ranching, growing animal feed, or illegal logging” (Greenpeace).
At the end of this virtual experience, participants are left with a quote by Qwatsinas (Chief Edward Moody) of the indigenous group Nuxalk Nation: “We must protect the forests for our children, grandchildren and children yet to be born. We must protect the forests for those who can’t speak for themselves such as the birds, animals, fish and trees.” Once the VR ended, participants are given back the seed in a small envelope with a greeting card message: “Take this seed as a reminder to keep our forests standing”. At the back of the card Tree’s official conservation partner is mentioned, the Rainforest Alliance: “We are building an alliance to protect forests, improve the livelihoods of farmers and forest communities, promote their human rights, and help them mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis”.
According to director Milica Zec, “people coming out of this experience understand deforestation at another, personal level, because it did happen to them; they understand that the rainforest—being the very longs of our earth—is actually our great natural ally in slowing down climate change”. Research on the potential of using immersive virtual reality (iVR) technologies such as Tree shows that iVR provokes “reflective processes on one’s own role towards nature more strongly” than, for example, traditional screen-based media.