VIR­TUAL BI­OL­OGY

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

Asian Diver (English) - - Sci­ence - Text by Tan Yi Mei and Yuan Yi Images by var­i­ous con­trib­u­tors

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

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