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Visual Metaphors in a Virtual Reality Environment

Rendering of testing results
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.


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.

The treatments with vivid elements contained a multi-sensory experience in which realistic 3D images of coal moved from one pile to another for the duration of the pretend shower continued. Personal treatments were defined as placing the participant into the content (i.e. use of a life-like avatar, personal language). So, the vivid but not personal condition, for example, had visual feedback of individual pieces of coal piling up on a table every fifteen seconds, but no avatar. Non-vivid feedback used a counting ticker on a billboard sign shown outside the window.

Among the findings:

  • Results showed a main effect of vividness. Participants exposed to vivid messages used less hot water when washing their hands compared to people exposed to non-vivid messages.
  • There were no significant effects for the different levels of personalization and no interaction effects.
  • The results suggest that new media-technology like immersive virtual environment can leverage vivid sensory experiences to change environmental behavior.
  • But the results also that even without the personalization provided by virtual reality it is perhaps equally effective to enhance vividness, which my be accomplished through lower tech means.


The impact of vivid messages on reducing energy consumption related to hot water use(pdf)
Environment & Behavior 47 (5) 570-592
Bailey, J., Bailenson, J.N., Flora, J., Armel, K.C., Voelker, D., Reeves, B. (2015)

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.