You don’t even need to get wet anymore to discover the underwater world; new VR technology is immersing people in marine biology and data collection from the comfort of the classroom
I COULD NEVER have imagined that one day it would be possible to dive anywhere in the world without leaving home. But the world of virtual reality has changed all that, as I discovered at the Asia Dive Expo (ADEX) 2017.
Using a brand-new VR dive simulator, I was transported to Singapore’s very own Sisters’ Islands Marine Park, along with a team of other marine biology enthusiasts, all guided by a session leader. The programme, Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs, is a multiuser experience that takes participants on a scientific dive, during which they learn about marine life identification and data collection; and it was like nothing I have ever experienced before.
The experience started with an introductory 360-degree video, with an opening aerial shot taken from above Singapore, enhanced with special effects. As we flew over Singapore’s landscapes, I couldn’t help but wonder if this little island nation actually had enough biodiversity to keep us interested.
My thoughts were soon interrupted, though, as the session facilitator brought us to a virtual, interactive tutorial room. Here, we learned about
the coral growth forms, and the other organisms that inhabit Singapore’s waters. We were able to engage with the information at our own pace, and, when we were all fully equipped with the knowledge we needed, we were ready to go for a scientific dive at Sisters’ Islands Marine Park.
It was simply amazing. Every single one of us was completely captivated from the moment the underwater world of Singapore appeared in front of our eyes. The 360-degree video allowed us to see all around us, and we could even see the other divers “behind” us, so it felt as if we were really diving accompanied by our dive buddies.
The sound of our breathing, bubbling through virtual regulators, was another touch of realism that further enhanced the fully immersive experience.
Despite the limited visibility, which is often the case when diving in Singapore, we saw a huge variety of marine flora and fauna as we swam virtually along a 100-metre-long transect line.
We were introduced to several of the coral genera commonly found in Singapore waters, as our session facilitator used her virtual indicator
I could never have imagined that one day it would be possible to dive anywhere in the world without leaving home
to point out Platygyra, Symphillia, Porities, and Goniastrea, as well as other organisms including various species of macroalgae, sea urchins, sponges and even fishes.
A familiar sight during the dive, even to non-scientists, were the anemonefish swimming among the tentacles of their anemone hosts. With the help of our guide, we also managed to identify various coral growth forms, other marine organisms, as well as the percentage cover of the habitat.
This is reflective of an actual habitat monitoring survey carried out by marine biologists to assess the quality and health of a particular habitat.
From time to time, the session facilitator activated quizzes in the virtual environment to test our knowledge on the marine life we were learning about – something impossible to do so easily when really underwater in
the “4D” world. We keyed in our answers and received immediate feedback, as our instructor had a real-time dashboard which showed our responses. She also showed us a few 3D models of corals, which had been created using underwater photogrammetry technology. The models looked so real that I almost felt that I could reach out and touch them.
Throughout the whole session, we were able to communicate verbally with our fellow “divers”, as well as our guide. It added an element of fun and camaraderie, as the whole team bonded and shared their awe of the experience.
It was such an effortless, exciting way to discover the underwater world and learn about data collection below the surface. I left feeling confident that I could participate in marine surveys, and help assess the health and condition of coral reefs and benthic ecosystems.
This technology is evolving, and I can’t wait to use it to explore the underwater world in other countries.
And who knows, maybe soon
I will be able to dive with my own 360-degree camera, share my diving experiences with the rest of the world, and contribute to the ongoing drive to discover more about marine life, and the challenges our oceans are facing. This VR project was produced by a team of experts from Infocomm Media Development Authority of Singapore, DHI Water & Environment, and Hiverlab. The project is powered by Hiverlab’s Storyhive immersive communication system.
BELOW LEFT Sisters’ Islands Marine Park is home to vibrant corals BELOW Singapore’s little-explored waters are inhabited by diverse macro life like this nudibranch
LEFT AND BELOW The VR programme introduces “divers” to benthic life forms, helping them learn how to identify them “in situ” ABOVE Divers get fully immersed in the underwater world without getting wet!
ABOVE LEFT It is thought that VR training will make it easier and more efficient for divers to learn how to collect important data underwaterABOVE RIGHT This fan coral covered in feather stars demonstrates the abundance of life that can be found in Singapore’s Sisters’ Islands Marine Park