The Augmented Reality Binoculars That Let Us See the Future Under Climate Change

An innovative new piece of interactive real-world fiction will help citizens understand the climate-changed future.

May 20 2015, 12:00pm

Image: OWLized

Climate change is a particularly difficult problem to visualize. The threats it poses—rising sea levels, hotter temperatures—can seem just far enough off to be cloaked in a hazy intangibility, which, generally, leads to apathy. For this reason, California's Marin County government is installing two new devices that will allow its residents to peer into the future, to see precisely what it will look like when sea level rise arrives on their doorstep.

They're called OWLs, and, if they work as planned, we may be seeing a lot more of them.

The project is a something of a novel experiment; it's a partnership between Marin County, the climate advocacy group Climate Access, and Owlized, a "visualization solutions company" whose business is to help citizens better see the future. The pilot is funded by FEMA, which is charged with mapping the flood plain in coastal areas and encouraging community engagement on future flood risks, and will be overseen by sociologist Dr. Susanne Moser.

The aim is to get community members civically engaged on climate issues, and to motivate resiliency planning and forward thinking. At the heart of the project is the technology; the science-based augmented reality that simulates a climate-changed future.

In the past, Owlized has built viewers—they look like those old-fashioned coin-operated binoculars—to help residents of a neighborhood see how development might change the look and feel of an area. Now, they've built a version that will allow users to see a simulation of the impacts of climate change firsthand—residents can stick their heads into the unit and see what will happen when sea levels climb.

The easiest way to explain the OWLs' utility is to see what they do for yourself. Imagine you're in Marin County, you're taking a stroll, and you see the viewer set up. You stick your nose in, and look.

Here's what you see—the location in Marin County today.

Here is the same spot with one foot of sea level rise—an amount we are likely to see by the end of the century. Here it is with three feet of sea level rise, which is generations further off still.

"The OWL shows you 360-degree views of the future," Owlized founder and CEO Aaron Selverston told me. "You'll see how a few different sea level rise scenarios will flood the surrounding area, and you'll see a few concepts for infrastructure responses that local communities could adopt in order to mitigate those impacts."

For now, those include sea walls to keep the waters out and a "green infrastructure" response.

"Climate change has been called the 'slow moving catastrophe,' so most of us, though I think everyone is somewhat aware, are not yet as engaged in the conversations we need to have about what we need to do as a community," Marin County supervisor Kathrin Sears told me in an email.

The experience will, of course, be more immersive in person.

"It's hard for people to visualize the future, and as a result it's easy to push problems like sea level rise to the back of our minds," Selverston said. "It's human nature to not respond to problems unless they're staring us in the face. Now, for the first time, people will see for themselves what will happen if we don't start preparing." And while the liberal Marin County probably isn't the community most in need of convincing that climate change is an issue, it's only the first planned location.

"We're already planning on expanding to San Francisco, San Mateo County (where Facebook and Oracle are headquartered), and Boston," Selverston said.

So, more OWLs are coming. Which, if they work as imagined, will be a good thing.

"One of the biggest challenges we face in engaging Americans in efforts to respond to climate disruption is that people tend to think the issue will impact plants and animals most followed by people in other countries, rather than themselves in the near term," said Cara Pike, executive director of Climate Access.

Ideally, the project will help improve the way average citizens understand the urgency of climate change, and help catalyze action, she said. "With the Here-Now-Us climate visualization project, we are aiming to overcome that barrier by providing an opportunity for people to see from a first person perspective through the Owlized viewer how climate change is impacting a location vulnerable to sea level rise currently, in the near future, and what possible responses could be adopted."