With our first public VR prototype, Frogworld, now available on Oculus and Steam, we are excited to announce the next area of focus for NatureSims™. Our primary goal is to reimagine the nature documentary for the new mediums of virtual and augmented reality through gamified, first-person simulations and companion educational applications. All in the hope that, when our players exit the simulation and put their devices down, they are inspired to be more thoughtful caretakers of our planet and the many other animals who also call it home. 

Our initial focus will remain on virtual reality (VR), which we find particularly exciting given the deeply immersive nature of well-designed VR applications. We will be taking advantage of that feature to provide players with the opportunity to experience the world from the perspective of one of our favorite flying animals, the monarch butterfly. 

As educators and lovers of nature, we see this as an exciting use of emerging technology—what better way to learn about an animal’s life cycle, habitat, and perceptual world than by experiencing them first hand? How better to make complex environmental issues like climate change more salient than by actually experiencing their effects on some of our most beloved, yet vulnerable animal cousins?

Forget “walk a mile in my shoes.” Try flying a thousand miles with these little wings.

Concept art: an adult monarch feeding on milkweed nectar. Credit: Jay/Birds Yen

Imagine flying across the country with 10 cm (~4-inch) wings, using thermals—columns of rising air—to reach heights of two kilometers or more and soaring like a hang glider over lakes, forests, fields, and cities as you inch closer to your wintering spot in Mexico before stopping for a quick drink and settling down for the night. Or weighing less than a sheet of paper and having to contend with the rain and high winds of summer storms made more frequent by climate change. Or, on a brighter note, flitting from flower to flower with eyes that perceive the world in UV-enhanced tetrachromatic vision (for a visual example of simulated butterfly vision, see this Youtube video). 

This is the world of the monarch that we hope to bring to life in Monarch VR. A simplified, but scientifically accurate simulation of the monarch’s habitat, life cycle, and perceptual world as we currently understand them. This will be our most ambitious project to date, incorporating the work of dozens of academic researchers into a first-person, interactive VR simulation that takes players on a journey from as a full-sized, migrating adult butterfly, and is playable on both PC VR headsets like the Valve Index as well as mobile headsets like the Oculus Quest

Concept art: 5th instar monarch caterpillar fending off a paper wasp. Credit: Jay/Birds Yen

In addition to being fun and research-based, it is important to us that Monarch VR both promotes and helps connect players to real-world conservation efforts. Toward that end, we are excited to announce a partnership with Monarch Joint Venture (MJV), a nationally-recognized nonprofit dedicated to protecting monarchs and their migration through education and conservation efforts. We look forward to working with MJV to build a simulation that builds on and supports their important work, educating players and inspiring them to become community scientists in their own communities.

Development is underway, and we will be posting a series of dev posts discussing the creation of and research behind various aspects of the simulation as they progress, beginning with the creation of the adult monarch butterfly avatar. We also plan to release our first playable prototype for public enjoyment/testing soon on Steam and Sidequest, and to have a full, playable demo available to the public in early 2022. Please stay tuned for more!

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