2018 2019

August 20, 2019

2018 – 2019

Project Spotlight: Immersing People in the Energy Ecosystem

Martin Wainstein is fascinated with climate change and people’s interactions with the planet. 

Starting his career at various universities around the world, Martin studied geo and astrobiology and developed new ways to think about the earth as a five-billion-year-old organism. His experience as a student, researcher and entrepreneur in Europe, New Zealand and his home country of Argentina eventually got him interested in climate change and how latency is the biggest obstacle to coming up with a viable solution that the whole world could get behind.

“If you think about it, the problem isn’t political or financial,” he said while taking a break in the Yale Center for Collaborative Arts and Media. “It’s social. People don’t have a good understanding of how the entire system works, and we need to give people instant feedback on our interactions with the planet.”

Martin is now an Innovator-in-Residence at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, and it’s easy to see how his passion for social responsibility and climate change can rub off on others. He quickly caught the attention of faculty advising the Blended Reality project who recruited him to develop an immersive experience that would help close the latency gap between action and effect.

Over the summer, Martin teamed up with virtual reality developer and recent Yale graduate Bobby Berry, and the two quickly sketched out how to build a climate and energy focused immersive experience in virtual reality (VR).

The result: Energy Academy, an educational experience that teach users about how energy is transferred from the sun to the earth and to plants—and then how that energy eventually makes its way to the electrical grid and our homes.

A Well-Rounded Team

Martin, Bobby and a third team member Winter Willoughby-Spera (’20) play on each other’s strengths to develop the experiences in Energy Academy. Martin draws upon his lifelong experience studying climate change to come up with concepts, and the three of them work together to bring those ideas to life on a whiteboard. Once fleshed out, the team conducts various design sprints and builds out the project one component at a time. 

It’s Bobby, however, that takes the lead in creating the immersive experiences in Unity, a popular game engine. As passionate Martin is about the environment, Bobby is just as passionate about building virtual experiences.

“VR gives you a closeness that no other medium can provide,” he said. “You’re able to get a sense of scale that allows you to deal with issues people care about. Immersion takes you closer and deeper. It’s pretty powerful stuff.”

Immersed in Climate Change

Putting on the VR goggles instantly transports you to a virtual campus made up of a series of geodesic domes—each one home to a separate experience. 

The first dome teleports you to the center of our solar system where you can view photons traveling the 93 million miles to the Earth, learning the percentage that is reflected back into space versus absorbed into our atmosphere. 

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The second dome shrinks you down to various sizes in a terrarium where you can inspect how sunlight is converted into energy through photosynthesis. You start insect-sized and can scale down to the cellular level.

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The third dome allows you to put yourself in the shoes of a local utility company and build a viable power grid across a region. Sponsored by local utility Everclear, the environment allows users to add solar panels, wind turbines and other energy sources and connect them to the existing grid. You can also run scenarios—such as a hurricane knocking out a relay station in Woodbridge, Conn., and take action to remediate power outages. The point, according to Martin, is to get people to understand how the energy grid works and how changes impact the system as a whole. 

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Weighing Next Steps

According to Martin and Bobby, Energy Academy was designed to be a living, breathing environment that can be constantly changed and built on to. Of course, as the project comes to an end at Yale, additional funding and partners will need to be found. Already, Martin is fielding interest from people and organizations across the spectrum of academia and the private sector.

Within the Yale community, the team could decide to join forces with a group studying the connection between ecology and religion. Outside of Yale, a partnership with the producers of Grand Theft Auto to develop socially-conscience games has also been discussed. 

Most importantly, the creators of Energy Academy know that they need to focus the content in their project in easily-consumable four- to five- minute blocks. Currently, the experience is more open-ended and up to the user to navigate. The team could even crowd-source this task, allowing the open source developer community to create immersive education content on their own.

Whatever the team decides, Energy Academy is likely to be a lifelong project for Martin who is dedicated to tackling the climate change problem until it is fixed. In the meantime, it’s all about using immersive experiences to give people a more personal understanding of how energy is transferred from the sun to our electrical outlets while seeing in real time how our behavior can impact climate change. 

Powerful stuff, indeed.