VR – Help for the Gulf

Though not in as bad a shape as are many other parts of the planet, the preser­va­tion of New Zealand’s marine en­vi­ron­ment could do with some sup­port. Vir­tual Re­al­ity might help.

Boating NZ - - Contents - BY SUZANNE MC­FAD­DEN

Auck­land’s Hau­raki Gulf is not in great shape. Vir­tual Re­al­ity could be a strat­egy to turn its for­tunes around.

Grow­ing up, James Frankham would spend sum­mers with his fam­ily at the bot­tom end of Wai­heke Is­land. On any given day, he could look up or down the Wai­heke Chan­nel and see two or three ‘work-ups’ of ka­hawai.

The work-ups – where bait­fish are rounded up into a ball and pushed to the ocean’s sur­face by their preda­tors, like ka­hawai – would make the wa­ter ap­pear to boil at the cen­tre of the feed­ing frenzy.

But last sum­mer, when Frankham – pub­lisher of New Zealand Geo­graphic – went out on to the Hau­raki Gulf in search of one of those work-ups to cap­ture on un­der­wa­ter video, he was left flab­ber­gasted.

“We spent days roam­ing around the Gulf, cov­er­ing miles and miles. We had some­one on the roof of our boat try­ing to spot a work-up that we could film,” he says. “Over three weeks, we found just one. It was un­real.”

The dra­matic de­cline in fish num­bers in the Hau­raki Gulf was the most shock­ing rev­e­la­tion for Frankham and his crew dur­ing six months of in­ten­sive pro­duc­tion on the Hau­raki Gulf phase of the NZ-VR Project – an un­der­wa­ter vir­tual re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ence to con­nect New Zealan­ders to their marine en­vi­ron­ment.

The NZ-VR ex­pe­ri­ences will be avail­able to schools through­out New Zealand from the first term of 2019, through project part­ner, the Sir Peter Blake Trust.

The Trust wanted to ex­tend the reach of its en­vi­ron­men­tal mes­sage to all young New Zealan­ders – and the best way was to en­gage them through the won­ders of vir­tual re­al­ity tech­nol­ogy. What they see then ex­pands into learn­ing re­sources that are com­pat­i­ble with the na­tional cur­ricu­lum.

It’s been a chal­leng­ing project, Frankham ad­mits – both in mas­ter­ing the highly tech­ni­cal art of VR video and lo­cat­ing the tal­ent.

“Find­ing pi­lot whales was al­ways go­ing to be dif­fi­cult. They

are big crea­tures, few and far be­tween, and they have mas­sive ranges. But we never ex­pected it to be hard to find ka­hawai. I ap­pre­ci­ate that this is anec­do­tal and not a sci­en­tific sur­vey, but the pop­u­la­tion of fish in the Gulf has re­duced far more than we an­tic­i­pated.”

The Hau­raki Gulf and its con­nect­ing wa­ters are the fo­cal point of this first phase of the NZ-VR project. New Zealand

Geo­graphic has a ‘wild dream’ to even­tu­ally cre­ate a vir­tual ex­pe­ri­ence of ev­ery biome in New Zealand – from moun­tain peaks to deep seas.

“My hope is that ev­ery New Zealan­der, off the back of this wider project, will have an ex­pe­ri­ence of the nat­u­ral world that will change their lives,” says Frankham. “I hope it changes hearts and minds and leads to a sea change in peo­ple’s un­der­stand­ing of the nat­u­ral world and their ap­pre­ci­a­tion of it.” The project be­gan in earnest 18 months ago, af­ter New

Zealand Geo­graphic sat down with the Sir Peter Blake Trust and the Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts – a global NGO work­ing to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment and sup­port sci­en­tific re­search – to fig­ure out the best way to get ‘more cut-through’ with their con­ser­va­tion mes­sages, par­tic­u­larly around ocean con­ser­va­tion.

“Ocean con­ser­va­tion suf­fers from a mas­sive im­age prob­lem, be­cause no one can see or eas­ily ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing that’s cov­ered by 30 me­tres of salt wa­ter,” says Frankham. “Un­less you ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing, how can you re­ally care for it when you

don’t have the tools for em­pa­thy?”

Un­til now, he adds, the best way to gen­er­ate that em­pa­thy for our ocean en­vi­ron­ment has been tak­ing class­rooms of kids to snorkel through marine re­serves, like Goat Is­land north of Auck­land, or through the me­dia, with pho­to­graphs and sto­ries from the vast un­der­wa­ter realm.

“But a pho­to­graph is nowhere near as close to the ex­pe­ri­ence you could have if you were out in the ocean. And vir­tual re­al­ity is now the best tool to recre­ate that ex­pe­ri­ence. Noth­ing will ever re­place a real-life ex­pe­ri­ence, but it’s very hard for peo­ple to ac­cess the marine en­vi­ron­ment. Very few peo­ple have been un­der­wa­ter, and only a tiny frac­tion of those have been un­der­wa­ter in a pris­tine marine ecosys­tem.

“VR al­lows peo­ple to get as close to a real ex­pe­ri­ence as pos­si­ble when a place is dif­fi­cult to ac­cess. We don’t want to send thou­sands of peo­ple to Antarc­tica, or to go div­ing in the SubAntarc­tic Is­lands, be­cause it’s too dan­ger­ous and too vul­ner­a­ble.”

Frankham di­rected the video pro­duc­tion, work­ing along­side pro­ducer Lucy van Oos­terom, a marine bi­ol­o­gist and a Blake NIWA Am­bas­sador in 2013, and award-win­ning pho­tog­ra­pher Richard Robinson. The project was funded by a Gulf In­no­va­tion Fund To­gether (GIFT) grant from Foun­da­tion North. He has also con­firmed more fund­ing from Nzon­air that will ex­tend pro­duc­tion through­out the North Is­land.

To tell the story of the Hau­raki Gulf and its in­hab­i­tants,

they trav­elled north to the Three Kings Is­lands – off the top of the North Is­land – and Paren­garenga Har­bour, down to the Poor Knights and Goat Is­land, out to the edge of the Con­ti­nen­tal Shelf out­side of the Gulf, and then in­side the Gulf it­self.

“Of course, marine or­gan­isms don’t re­spect the bound­aries of the Hau­raki Gulf Marine Park, and they’re af­fected by things well out­side those bound­aries. So the cov­er­age has been wide and yet all con­nected to the Gulf,” says Frankham.

There were highs and lows dur­ing the project’s pro­duc­tion, but the team was de­ter­mined to cap­ture the good and the bad within the Gulf to cre­ate a re­al­is­tic pic­ture of its health.

“Some of the pris­tine en­vi­ron­ments we’ve filmed have been mind-blow­ing. The huge un­der­wa­ter forests of sar­gas­sum sea­weed and fish ev­ery­where at Three Kings… it’s amaz­ing to think that more of the Gulf could be like that if it was prop­erly pro­tected. That’s the great op­por­tu­nity here.

“But we also filmed sewage gush­ing out of over­flow points into the har­bour, and ef­flu­ent pour­ing out of creeks into the Wai­heke Chan­nel. It was pretty sad­den­ing.”

One of Frankham’s high­lights was film­ing dol­phins in quite a unique way. Hatched from ‘a mad idea’, they built a con­trap­tion from $200 of alu­minium, bolted it on to the bow of the boat and at­tached a 360o VR cam­era.

“We knew it had never been done be­fore, and as soon as we put it in the wa­ter, we had dol­phins surf­ing on the bow,” he says. “When you put the VR head­set on, you’ve got dol­phins swim­ming all around you. You pop out of the wa­ter ev­ery now and then, and you ac­tu­ally feel like a dol­phin. It’s rad­i­cal.”

The Sir Peter Blake Trust’s ob­jec­tive from the NZ-VR project is to de­liver an im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence to schools, so stu­dents could see both the rich bio­di­ver­sity be­low the sur­face of New Zealand wa­ters, as well as the dam­age that’s been done to the ecosys­tem.

“We’ve strug­gled in the past to get any great reach with our en­vi­ron­men­tal mes­sag­ing and de­liv­er­ing ex­pe­ri­en­tial learn­ing at scale is tra­di­tion­ally very ex­pen­sive,” says the Trust’s head of com­mu­nity en­gage­ment, Kelly Bleak­ley, whose pri­mary fo­cus is to get the pro­gramme into schools.

“This tech­nol­ogy is an awe­some way to reach a large num­ber of young peo­ple in an im­pact­ful way with a mes­sage that ed­u­cates and in­spires them to care for the en­vi­ron­ment.

“We’ve been tri­alling the con­tent in a num­ber of schools in Auck­land this year, and stu­dents have been blown away by the footage and love the VR tech­nol­ogy. We show them what’s re­ally hap­pen­ing out there in their ocean, and then fo­cus on the ac­tions that can be taken to pro­tect it.”

The free pro­gramme will be avail­able to pri­mary, in­ter­me­di­ate and sec­ondary schools na­tion­wide from early next year.

Teach­ers will be able to sign up to two op­tions. The first op­tion is for schools in Auck­land, where a trav­el­ling ed­u­ca­tor will take class­rooms through a one-hour road­show ses­sion, al­low­ing stu­dents to ex­pe­ri­ence the VR through head­sets and learn what they can do to help the marine en­vi­ron­ment.

The sec­ond op­tion is for schools na­tion­wide. The Trust is cre­at­ing teach­ing re­sources to ac­com­pany the video con­tent, in both the sci­ence and so­cial stud­ies cur­ricu­lum, es­pe­cially in Year 9-10. “Any teacher na­tion­wide can pick up the les­son plans, ac­cess the videos, and use them to ed­u­cate their stu­dents,” says Bleak­ley.

And not ev­ery stu­dent will need to put on a head­set to see the un­der­wa­ter world come to life. They can use the ‘Magic Win­dow’ mode, which al­lows view­ers to move their tablet or mo­bile phone around to glide through the wa­ter with a 360o view.

The Trust’s long-term plan is to have the ed­u­ca­tor travel to schools through­out the coun­try and cre­ate vir­tual re­al­ity vi­sion of the marine en­vi­ron­ment in their ar­eas. BNZ

Reprinted with kind per­mis­sion from the Sir Peter Blake Trust.

VR tech­nol­ogy gives view­ers an op­por­tu­nity to meet marine crea­tures with­out so much as dip­ping a toe into the wa­ter.

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