14/07/2014 11:52 BST | Updated 13/09/2014 06:59 BST

Computer Graphics Used to Spark Environmental Action - It's Not Just for Movies and Games

What comes to mind when you think about computer graphics? A blockbuster film like Transformers: Age of Extinction - two and a half hours of trademark Hollywood flash? Or perhaps an animated film like Toy Story or Ice Age? How about a massively successful video game like Call of Duty, or the kind of virtual reality experiences now bubbling under the mainstream and ready to explode in popularity?

All are great, reliable examples of how software can help bring imaginative and entertaining ideas to life but how about a realistic image of a platform resting in the middle of the ocean - quietly collecting the murky soup of plastic pollution as waves roll in and the sun glimmers across the surface?

We so often default to imagining computer graphics as tools for creating lavish visual effects for amusement, but the truth is that the technology can be also be harnessed to much more practical purposes - such as selling an experimental idea that can change the way future generations experience the world around us.

That's exactly what The Ocean Cleanup did. The foundation spawned from an idea conceived by young Boyan Slat, a student from the Netherlands who spun his frustration at water pollution into a real, revolutionary proposal: using an array of floating barriers to catch and help remove the many millions of pounds of plastic pollutants found in the world's oceans. At the age of 17, he first presented the idea at a TEDx conference in 2012.

Part of what made that initial presentation so alluring was the imagery cooked up by Erwin Zwart of Fabrique Computer Graphics, a Dutch communication and design agency. Zwart used the same kind of 3D modeling software tapped to create hulking robots that fight and destroy virtual cities onscreen, but put it to a more productive task: bringing an idea to life in an incredibly realistic fashion to convince others of its possibility and feasibility.

With its concept proven sound by a large team of experts, The Ocean Cleanup recently relied on Zwart once more to create dazzling animated footage of the platform to help drive its ongoing crowdfunding campaign, which aims to raise $2 million USD to begin construction of the ocean array. It has thus far raised more than half of that sum from 21,000+ backers in just over a month, and appears on track to reach its goal before the campaign concludes in September.

The Ocean Cleanup's computer-generated imagery helped make an extraordinary proposal seem realistic, but CG can also be used to make a strong point without real-life consequences. Case in point: Irish bookmaker Paddy Power recently released an image that gave the impression that the company had deforested a large portion of the Amazon rainforest to make the words "C'mon England, PP" visible from the sky - an encouraging World Cup message with seemingly disastrous consequences.

Of course, the damage wasn't real at all: Paddy Power used software to realistically render the deforestation into a stock photo of the rainforest. With the stage granted by the public furor, the company explained that it aimed to raise awareness of real-life deforestation via its little stunt. Brash as the move may have been, it accomplished the mission and got people talking about the issue.

The approaches certainly vary, but the end result is the same: the software used to create wild visual destruction and virtual worlds can also be utilized to help spur impactful environmental change, whether it's convincing volunteers and backers to support a revolutionary idea or bringing awareness to a quietly devastating issue via a bit of visual trickery. Computer graphics can help create incredible instances of escapism - but also play a part of helping to change our world for the better.