Bringing the ocean closer home: The Hydrous uses VR to take people on virtual dives

By Sayujya S, Desk Reporter
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We are all aware of the devastating impact of climate change on earth’s land, air and water.

Marine biologist Erika Woolsey has seen first hand how coral reefs and sea life are being damaged by climate change while diving in the oceans. It has made her determined to find a way for others to share her experience, including those who can’t easily explore the ocean.

Ms. Woolsey is using virtual reality (VR) to “bring the ocean to everyone” through her non-profit, The Hydrous. The US-based collective of scientists, filmmakers and divers is taking people on immersive virtual dives to create a sense of “universal ocean empathy,” raising awareness of reef damage and inspiring action to protect our seas.

Coral reefs

As a habitat, coral reefs are similar to the biodiversity of rainforests, with an estimated 25 percent of marine species depending on them. However, climate change, pollution and overfishing have damaged around half the world’s shallow water coral reefs.

Two decades of underwater exploration have given Ms. Woolsey an intimate understanding of the threats facing reefs. “I’ve seen first-hand this shift from a healthy colorful vibrant coral reef, to what looks like a moonscape,” she says. “When the coral goes, so do the fish, so do the other animals that depend on the reef and human societies that rely on those ecosystems for their livelihood.”

“Immerse”

It is this experience The Hydrous team set out to recreate with their award-winning film “Immerse.” Intended to be watched with a VR headset, viewers join Ms. Woolsey for a nine-minute guided virtual dive on the coral reefs off the western Pacific Island of Palau, immersed in a 360-degree underwater view. They swim alongside manta rays, sea turtles and sharks before witnessing the deterioration of the reefs. The experience often elicits strong reactions.

“Immerse” premiered at the International Ocean Film Festival in 2017 and has won awards including the EarthXFilm 2019 Official Selection. Ms. Woolsey has also led live virtual dive events, including guiding 450 participants at the National Geographic VR Theater in Washington in 2019.

However, it has been in the last year, amid global lockdowns, that virtual dives have truly come into their own. Since June 2020, almost 1 million people, aged eight to 90, have taken part in virtual dives. A much-needed “tool for teleportation” at a time when people are confined to their homes, Ms. Woolsey says the dives also offer people a connection that goes beyond the ocean.

“Right now, we’re not only disconnected from our oceans but also each other, so these dives are a wonderful tool to connect us more to our natural environments as well as to each other,” she says.

Technology and future plans

Ms. Woolsey hopes advances in camera technology will allow her team to “take more and more people to places in the ocean that are underexplored places further away from human civilization.” They are developing a virtual experience that will put the participant in the role of a marine biologist, tracking and monitoring manta rays, conducting biodiversity surveys underwater, and even transporting the viewer to space to monitor global sea surface temperatures.

Ultimately, Ms. Woolsey’s message about our oceans is a positive one. The VR technology shows not only the state our oceans are in but how they have a chance to recover. It is this that Ms. Woolsey says people take away with them after the experience.

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