Some parents worry that video games might prevent their children from succeeding in the real world. For Cody Karutz, though, an early infatuation with a video game led directly to his career today.
"In 1995 I bought a Nintendo Virtual Boy, an early virtual reality (VR) device. It was so terrible that my mother actually returned it to the toy store mere days after we bought it," Karutz says. "It was too late, though—its black-and-red three-dimensional imagery hooked me on VR’s potential."
Twenty-nine-year-old Karutz is the founder and creative director of Blue Trot, a company that uses academic research to create compelling environmental education. After his early Nintendo experience, it was his time as an undergraduate research assistant in cognitive science, using "stimulus design" to create virtual worlds, that cemented his passion for VR. He then spent six years doing research in the field at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Today, he creates and designs direct-media experiences (using both VR and AR, or augmented reality) that tell stories concerning the environment and science. Karutz's directorial debut and educational VR experience, The Crystal Reef, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016.
Both AR and VR have achieved buzzword status in the tech world—just consider the 2016 phenomenon that was Pokémon Go—but Karutz's work is directing the medium in a more serious direction, as he hopes to shed light on a reality that many modern humans seem to stubbornly ignore: The need to conserve our planet.
In fact, Karutz sees the medium as a perfect fit for the subject matter.
"As a species we have evolved to perceive direct and tangible threats, resulting in many parts of the looming climate system that feel psychologically distant," Karutz says. "It seems paradoxical that we need a digital screen to make us feel closer to nature, but that is part of what it will take for us to make significant environmental behavior change, if implemented in the right places and ways."
Karutz believes that VR is in its early, experimental phase, particularly as it applies to educational entertainment. But he points to research supporting his claim that VR experiences "have the power to reduce physical-waste behaviors, influence dietary consumption, and increase literacy of complex environmental systems such as climate change or agriculture"—and thus he has faith in the medium's growth.
In his own life, Karutz firmly believes in what environmental educator Mitchell Thomashow calls "balancing the visceral and the virtual," and makes a point to counteract all his screen time with digitally devoid activities like scuba diving, fishing, and backcountry exploring. But, ultimately, he considers his status as a digital native an advantage in effecting environmental change.
"As someone that grew up in a new age of digital storytelling and Web-enabled video games, I feel perfectly poised to utilize emerging interactive mediums to educate and create environmental change," Karutz says.
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here.