How virtual reality can drive nature conservation

Virtual reality technology is little used within ecology, but its potential to benefit nature conservation is significant writes ecologist Ash Welch

While nature conservation has been quick to adopt new technologies such as GIS, drones and camera traps, it has been slow to embrace visualisation techniques compared with others such as architects and engineers.

With wider acceptance of the idea that our towns and cities function as ecosystems, ecological networks and communities of organisms which have adapted to live in urban areas, comes recognition of the need for alternative solutions to flood prevention, climate cooling, noise reduction and air purification. To support this, visualisation could help encourage investment in biodiversity; in particular by highlighting the investment benefits to developers. For example, by using immersive technology, a whole range of real estate customers, from home buyers to commercial tenants, will not only be able to virtually explore and experience new developments, but also the surrounding natural environment.

Over the coming few years it is widely anticipated that new approaches to protecting and enhancing ecology are to take centre stage. These include Natural Capital (giving natural resources that directly benefits us a quantifiable value e.g. water, carbon sequestration) and biodiversity net-gain (“development that leaves biodiversity in a better state than before” CIEEM, 2016). Visualisation has the potential to help the audience ‘see’ for themselves the benefits that ecology can deliver, not only on ethical grounds to improve habitats and ecosystems, but for aesthetics, health and wellbeing, air quality control, water attenuation and more.

The time is right

With the onset of climate change ever more apparent, the effects of pollutants such as microplastics being witnessed in real-time, and with global biodiversity staring Earth’s sixth mass extinction in the eyes, the outlook for the environment has never been more concerning. However, on the up side, as cities continue to grow, local governing bodies are slowly accepting urban environments as ecosystems and realising the benefits of urban green spaces; something which is slowly becoming apparent through policy. Indeed, healthy habitats and ecosystems are essential for a whole range of ecosystem services, which in cities includes sustainable drainage, climate cooling, noise reduction, air purification and human wellbeing. However, lack of green space in urban environments has become a significant issue and there is growing evidence to suggest that quantity and quality of greenspace in living environments has significant positive associations with better mental and physical health (van den Berg et al., 2015). There are also early indications that exposure to biodiversity, such as noticing a variety of bird species on your daily commute, also positively effects psychological wellbeing (Luck et al., 2011; Cox et al., 2017). The time for showcasing nature’s many benefits has never been more apparent, something which is now imaginable through an easy to digest medium.

Four things you need to know about using VR in nature conservation

1 – Communications: Increasingly, immersive technology is being used as a communication tool by companies involved in a range of development projects. Because traditional two-dimensional design plans can be hard to interpret, stakeholders may not be able to easily understand what ecological mitigation/enhancements are proposed within a scheme. It also enables the audience to visualise the numerous benefits of these enhancements.

2 – Marketing: By combining 3D images with statistics relating to the health and wellbeing benefits associated with nature, visualising biodiversity could be used as a powerful marketing tool. Imagine interacting with butterflies, birds and bumblebees on a summer’s day in your future garden?

3 – Cost: The cost to produce 3D images differs according to the size and complexity of the project. However, developing an image is nearly always cost effective as it can be used for a variety of purposes; with staff, clientele, the public or prospective customers, in person or online. 360 degree images can be viewed through mobile VR headsets; such as Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Go or Google Cardboard. Furthermore, fully interactive VR environments can be developed from the same model and viewed through advanced VR headsets; such as HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.

4 – Benefits to developers: Visualisation enables developers to communicate to a range of audiences, enabling everyone to understand and experience the benefits of a development with integrated natural features and habitats. It has commercial potential too; public audiences could be enticed to a new development before it is even built and potential buyers could be encouraged to purchase a new apartment by demonstrating the natural beauty and wellbeing benefits through VR. The truth is that the benefits of this technology are only just starting to be discovered.

It’s already a reality

Although the uptake of ecological enhancements such as green roofs and walls on new builds is increasing, such features are often regarded as an aspiration, as concepts which are typically disregarded when other requirements are prioritised. However, with changing attitudes and new technology that could all be about to change. Recently AECOM created 3D images to depict such enhancements prior to the development of a new apartment block in London, showcasing not only how the ecological enhancement’s aesthetics within the building design, but portraying the type of wildlife the habitats are likely to attract. In this example, our main aim was to attract urban pollinators by creating a range of habitats that provide sources of nectar, pollen and refuge throughout the year. This includes life-like representations of green walls, green roofs, pollinator planters and insect hotels alongside solar photovoltaic panels within a communal roof top setting, ultimately highlighting how biodiversity, sustainability and leisure can be combined. The images here give an idea of the level of detail given to the habitats, flowers and insects. Although the project is still in development, the design will soon become reality.

Explore the VR for yourself, here:

Interested in visualisation?

Contact Andy Thomas, Head of Visualisation and VR:



CIEEM. 2016. Biodiversity Net Gain: Good practice principles for development. Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management. Accessed online on 24/05/18 from

Luck, G.W., Davidson, P., Boxall, D., Smallbone, L. 2011. Relations between urban bird and plant communities and human well-being and connection to nature. Conservation Biology, 25(4):816-26

Cox, D.T.C., Shanahan, D.F., Hudson, H.L., Plummer, K.E., Siriwardena, G.M., Fuller, R.A., Anderson, K., Hancock, S., Gaston, K.J. Doses of Neighborhood Nature: The Benefits for Mental Health of Living with Nature. BioScience, 67(2): 147-155.

Van den Berg, M., Wendel-Vos, W., van Poppel, M., van Mechelen, W., Maas, J. 2015. Health benefits of green spaces in the living environment: A systematic review of epidemiological studies. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 14(4): 806-816.

Williams, P. 2013. Winter 2013 Research Curation: Emotions and Consumer Behavior. University of Pennsylvania. Accessed online on 01/05/2018 from