Sensors & Behavior (ARPA-E) > Behavioral Interventions

Visual Metaphors in a Virtual Reality Environment

Two strategies highlighted by scholars—personalization and vividness—may be especially useful in promoting environmental behavior change. This project tested both using virtual reality technology.

Investigators: Jakki Bailey, Jeremy N. Bailenson, June Flora, Dave Voelker, Carrie Armel, Byron Reeves


Customizing and personalizing information improves the effectiveness of many interventions, including in public health. Vivid messages are emotionally interesting and imagery-provoking in a sensory or spatial way.

This study investigated the use of Immersive virtual environment technology to impact energy use behaviors, specifically related to hot water, and the impact of both vivid and personal messages in tandem. Immersive virtual environment technology can create vivid and personal experiences via multisensory interactions that place people directly into environmental scenarios.

Hot water use in showering, which is a significant part of residential energy conservation, was targeted in this project. Participants were placed in a virtual shower where they received visual and audio feedback about how much energy was used to heat and transport the water in their virtual shower. The experiences were created using message vividness (vivid or not vivid) and personalization (personal or not personal). Before and after the treatment, the researchers measured the amount of hot water people used while washing their hands in a real sink placed near the laboratory.


Publications and Presentations

The Impact of Vivid Messages on Energy Saving Behaviors
Bailey, J., Bailenson, J.N., Flora, J., Armel, K.C., Voeker, D., Reeves, B.

Future Work

The techniques utilized in this study could be applied to numerous other behaviors adding up to significant levels of energy conservation. Interventions could be developed to change individual transportation habits, or buying energy efficient appliances. Researchers are shifting towards to applying vivid interventions to real world contexts. One field study implementing a home energy conservation program demonstrated household electricity efficiency gains by using descriptive language as opposed to simply stating pricing. With the rapid development of interactive and vivid media, it is critical to understand how these technological tools promote pro-environmental behavior change in multiple domains.