Is VR a Solution to the NIMBY Problem?

By combining environmental and computer science, two Colby professors collaborate on wind power in Maine

Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Alison Bates in Belfast, Maine. Bates is collaborating with Assistant Professor of Computer Science Stacy Doore and others to create a virtual reality environment of wind turbines in action.
By Kayla Voigt '14Photography by Caitlin Penna
April 20, 2022

Most Americans—77 percent, according to the Pew Research Center—support wind turbines as a source of renewable, clean energy. But something funny happens when that question moves a little closer to home. Wind projects like the now-infamous Cape Wind project on the Nantucket Sound sputter and die out after years of relentless local opposition.

“The biggest barrier to the industry right now is that we don’t have a social license to operate,” said Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Alison Bates. “We tend to see high levels of public support for renewable energy, but a lot of opposition at a local scale.”

That kind of “not in my back yard” problem is exactly what Bates hopes to solve with a new, cross-disciplinary research initiative intent on understanding the human element behind environmental policy changes. Bates is collaborating with Assistant Professor of Computer Science Stacy Doore, and many others, to create a virtual reality environment of turbines in action so the people who are debating and deciding the future of offshore wind can do so based on knowledge instead of emotion and imagination.

Their goal: To illustrate exactly what wind turbines look, feel, and sound like to locals across the Maine coast where wind projects are proposed. “It’s very difficult for people to visualize what these wind farms look like,” said Bates. “Most people have never interacted with one because few even exist in the United States.”

The stakes are high. “If we don’t have people on board with what we’re trying to do to address climate change, it’s not going to happen,” she said. “I think if we don’t include people into the design of what an energy transition can look like, we won’t end up with a result that’s just or equitable.”

Bates wasn’t sure how to approach such a complicated research question, or if it was even possible. She started at Colby’s Oak Foundation GIS laboratory, where geospatial mapping would create a layered snapshot of elevation, structures, and land cover in a given area. But it wasn’t quite the immersive experience she hoped for. Showing multiple scenarios of how the wind turbines appear from the shoreline at scale and how they impact vessels on the water required a little more oomph.

From there, she approached Colby’s Mule Works Innovation Lab to find out if they could make it happen with virtual reality. The lab is an interdisciplinary maker space focusing on newer technologies like virtual reality, drones, 3D printing, and laser cutting.

Mark Wardecker, instructional technologist for Academic ITS, worked with fellow instructional technologist Tim Stonesifer to build a working prototype in virtual reality that Bates and her student researchers could use as a jumping-off point for the real thing.

“We talked about a lot of different options available to balance what we could actually accomplish in a short time frame,” said Stonesifer. “How do we generate a coastline that looks similar to what we have here in Maine? Do we want it to be exact, or close enough? What kind of interactions do we want users to have? There are so many possibilities, and we’re really here to support the students as they create.”

That’s where Doore comes in. Recognizing their mutual interest in climate change research, Bates and Doore decided to work together.  

Doore’s work at Colby’s INSITE lab—the Immersive Navigation Systems and Inclusive Technology Ethics lab—focuses on information access through technologies like VR. “Understanding distance and space and scale is very difficult for anyone, but the VR environment allows someone to build the actual scenario they would experience with these wind turbines and ask questions,” said Doore.

Virtual reality works via headset technology, allowing the wearer of the headset to see an environment in three dimensions and interact with it in a way that a traditional video game or photograph can’t replicate. For this project, virtual reality allows homeowners, politicians, fishermen, and turbine engineers to step directly into the surrounding environment and understand what it feels like and looks like. This is just one of many potential applications of the technology, from training surgeons in high-risk scenarios to providing accessible virtual field trips to places around the globe.

“Our plan is to show different views of these wind turbines that could appear on the Maine coast,” said Doore. “We would show how they would appear to someone standing on the coastline and on a beach, and then have them step into a virtual boat to see what it’s like up close in the water.”

The project is still in the design phase, led by computer science major Izge Bayyurt ’22. Using two primary open-source software systems—Unity, a gaming engine, and Blender, a 3D-rendering tool—he’s building the simulation step by step to make it as lifelike as possible.

“We’re definitely in the early stages,” said Bayyurt. “But it has so much potential. When you’re working with VR, it’s a much different experience than what you see on a flat-screen. I’ve been really enjoying working with the different scenes we’re presenting on this to try and change this narrative about renewable energy.”

Bayyurt is working to finish as much of the production as possible before graduating this spring and heading to Silicon Valley to start his first job as a software developer at mobile gaming company Pocket Gems.

“With this project, I’ve got to solve a few design problems this semester before I leave. I have a running checklist of what the user can do in each scene,” he said. “We want to make sure there’s a contrast between experiencing these turbines from far away on the cliff, to seeing them on a beach, or up close on the water. I’ve got to figure out how to simulate the Earth’s curvature, for example, and how much time it should take someone to get from the beach to five, 10 miles offshore.”

A Cross-Disciplinary Team Built for Impact

That’s just the beginning of the cross-disciplinary project. “[Besides computer science], I’m working with a marine ecologist and a fisheries biologist to explore some of the novel ways to integrate these technological solutions,” said Bates. “It’s been so cool to look at this problem from multiple angles, rather than focus on one piece of the puzzle.”

“It’s a very Colby approach,” agreed Doore. “I’ve been lucky enough to work on these interdisciplinary projects and research I would never be able to do otherwise.”

Seeing technology come to life—and be used in a way that can help solve one of humanity’s most pressing problems today—has been satisfying for every member of the team, but especially watching students flourish learning new techniques they can take with them for years to come. “It’s really gratifying to watch students build this from the ground up and be so hands-on,” said Wardecker. “It’s why we do what we do.”

While the project remains in its early stages, it establishes a framework for future research on a variety of topics in the sciences, humanities, and beyond. “When Alison came to us with this project, it was so exciting to know we would make an impact on something relevant to Mainers,” said Stonesifer.

Creating an in-depth simulation like this one takes away the natural bias that comes from each individual’s imagination, so everyone can react to the exact same scenarios. It makes theoretical, socially driven research like this much more real as they move into the field. 

“My students on the environmental side are identifying these locations that we can use as models that our computer science students can create,” said Bates. “Together, we’ll go in the field with this technology and be able to ask much more contextual questions.”