Using ‘The Matrix’ to feel climate change

UN Development Programme
3 min readSep 30, 2019
©Valery Brozhinsky/

By UNDP and Magic Leap

In the blockbuster science fiction movie ‘The Matrix’, after Neo takes the red pill offered by Morpheus, he not only learns the truth about reality, he also discovers how an ecological disaster has led to humans being harvested and enslaved by machines. At UNDP we wondered, what if we ‘matrix’ our way into tackling climate change, using emerging technologies to create urgency and kick start political action. After all, we’re in uncharted territory, or as writer James Bridle in ‘The New Dark Age’ calls it ‘peak knowledge.’

We went straight to the source — to Magic Leap, whose Senior Vice President for Creative Strategy, John Gaeta, created all the special effects in ‘The Matrix’. What did we learn?

Several studies indicate that being able to experience the impact of climate change allows people to connect emotionally with the problems and make them more likely to act on that feeling. We deployed this strategy when we were thinking through what the future of development might look like (check out our imaginary future of development organization — Mantis Systems — that we built with Nesta, SuperFlux and Bond). Our colleagues in the United Arab Emirates government went with similar tactics to create a visceral experience of air pollution by getting staff to breathe in air from 2050 that contained pollutants that would build in over 30+ years in case of business as usual development scenario. Imagine what breathing that air felt like, and what you might want to do to avoid it!

Spatial computing takes this one — well maybe several hundred — steps further. So what is it? Combine virtual, mixed and augmented reality and voila! you get emerging technology that brings information from 2D screens into a 3D space allowing you to interact directly with the digital world. It is a little bit like having an x-ray view into our world with the ability to play with it. On some level, it is the purest form to date of blending technology into the world.

If the definition sounds too techy, maybe a few examples might help. In some cases, this allows farmers to manipulate their physical environment (their farms) as they are affected by weather in real time in order to increase crop yields and reduce costs. Or consider the Hydrous project that gave public servants from Palau a visceral experience of the effects of climate change on the underwater world, which prompted them to do more to protect its coral reef.

The Hydrous project gave public servants from Palau a visceral experience of the effects of climate change on the underwater world, which prompted them to do more to protect its coral reef. ©Damsea/

Spatial computing can help reduce skill gap and errors in production by applying mixed reality to training employees without advanced technical experience or specialized equipment. It could also increase perception, engagement and overall experience of the world for the children with autism. And for one of our more favorite non-development applications of the technology, check out the experience of the speech from William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like’ — as if you’re in the same room.

Working with Magic Leap, the German Space Agency and BadVR, we created an experiential visualization, Climate Change Spares No One, that brings to life visceral implications of the changing climate on the delta cities. Our intention is to enable anyone to feel, sense and see what life in +2 celsius world is like. The interactive experience was showcased during the 2019 Social Good Summit and during the UN General Assembly UN Action Zone.

We hope this is just a start of our partnership with emerging technology companies whose work can potentially increase the urgency of the scale and scope of climate emergency into our day to day lives, and inspire bold action to forestall the catastrophy the world is likely to experience if we don’t act.

This blog was co-written by UNDP’s Milica Begovic, Lejla Sadiku, Marina Petrovic, Robert Pasicko and Cassie Flynn, and from Magic Leap’s Andy Lanning, Prudence Fenton, Jad Madouchy, Suzanne Borders, Austin Grossman, Naomi Augustine-Yee, Graeme Devine and Quiddale O’Sullivan.