Feel the ocean, the VR way

Virtual reality was an instant hit at the IUCN congress exhibition space. All one needed was a VR headset, a mobile phone and one of the various ‘apps’ on offer to dive through coral reefs, into the depths of oceans around the world


Virtual reality cameras at work. Photo: The Ocean Agency
Virtual reality cameras at work. Photo: The Ocean Agency

Try pronouncing Papahānaumokuākea. Well, by the time you form the word in your head, virtual reality (VR) might take you right there.

For the uninitiated, Papahānaumokuākea is a 582,578 sq. mile marine sanctuary in the Hawaiian archipelago that was recently declared the largest protected area—both marine and terrestrial—on the planet after US President Barack Obama (who was born in Hawaii) quadrupled the area of the marine reserve. The declaration came on the eve of the World Conservation Congress held from 1-10 September in Waikiki, Honolulu, under the aegis of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Papahānaumokuākea is three-and-a-half times larger than California and 10 times the size of Iowa. So it generated quite a buzz at the IUCN eco-summit, where 9,000-plus delegates congregated to discuss ways to protect and conserve the natural world.

As Inger Andersen, IUCN director general, put it, “The status granted to Papahānaumokuākea has put the spotlight on the state of the oceans, which we have treated with extraordinary carelessness.” The expansion was said to mark the US’ commitment to safeguarding the ocean environment, which is under threat from human-induced climate change, overfishing and pollution. The summit also celebrated 100 years of the US National Park Service.

Coming back to VR, the technology was an instant hit at the IUCN congress exhibition space. All one needed was a VR headset, a mobile phone and one of the various “apps” on offer to dive through coral reefs, into the depths of oceans around the world.

The click of a button transforms you into an ocean explorer, swimming with fish and marine mammals—an unforgettable experience difficult to replicate in real life. “The ocean is another world, a world full of mystery, that most people don’t know or understand. Most people don’t dive and probably never will. It is a huge lack of awareness issue for ocean conservation,” Richard Vevers, a former adman and founder of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit, said at the congress.

A few years ago, Vevers decided to pursue underwater photography. One thing led to another and, with a little help from technology giant Google, Vevers replicated Google Street View with a difference—a view that meanders through nooks and crevices underwater. Visit here .

Vevers’ technology is aimed at raising awareness and getting people acquainted with ocean life. At the congress, he showcased the unique 360-degree underwater camera that had helped his team create a virtual rendition of the ocean floor in Google Street View. According to his website Theoceanagency.org, “More people went virtual diving in the first week of its (Google Street View Oceans) launch than have ever been diving in person.”

Vevers’ mission is to protect the oceans, a challenge he took up because “the ocean was out of sight and out of mind from everyone”.

“The ocean provides us with food, most of the oxygen we breathe, and a favourable climate. It is the main reason why mankind has been able to flourish. But it is no longer stable due to our greed. It is changing faster than at any time in millions of years. We have pushed it to its limit, thinking it was too big to fail us,” says Vevers.

I used Vevers’ VR headset to go diving in Papahānaumokuākea, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Florida, the Olympic National Park, Washington, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Of course, Google Expeditions and Google Cardboard can help replicate similar experiences too.

A stone’s throw away from Vevers’ presentation, delegates queued up to watch Valen’s Reef, a short film by the non-profit Conservation International. In this, the VR headset transports you to the coral reefs of Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia. The virtual world teeming with fish keeps you spellbound.

“We know more about the surface of Mars and the moon than we do of our own ocean floor. It’s a known fact that 70% of our oxygen comes from marine plants and yet we remain ignorant on most things concerning our oceans,” Ved Chirayath, a research scientist with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, says.

Our apathy towards the marine environment stems perhaps from the fact that all of it is hidden from view. Unlike terrestrial forests and ecosystems, we aren’t able to experience and appreciate the biodiversity in oceanic waters. To change that, we need to go diving. And with VR, the possibilities are endless and exciting.

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation.

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