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Swapping the snorkel for the headset

last updated 24 February 2017

A new virtual reality prototype that allows users to 'dive' and learn about coral life reflects VR technology's emergence in a growing number of fields.

By Annabelle Liang

Marine biologists, students and volunteers can now explore a part of the 40-hectare Sisters Islands' Marine Park using a virtual reality (VR) underwater simulation tool from the comfort of their seats.

The training tool, known as Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs, uses VR headsets to present a realistic 3D underwater environment, and is used to help teach methods of assessing and monitoring coral reefs. It is also another example of how VR technology is emerging in a host of industries and applications beyond gaming and retail as headsets become more accessible.

The prototype is a collaboration between VR content producer Hiverlab, environmental consultants DHI Water & Environment, and the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA)’s PIXEL Labs.

Using a VR solution on dry land enhances the effectiveness of training large groups, as communication underwater is limited to visual cues and hand signals.  Meanwhile, classroom teaching using 2D materials is far from ideal.

“Two-dimensional lecture materials are very different from the real experience. That is one of the most difficult things for divers who are new to survey methods,” said Debby Ng, founder of Hantu Blog, which conducts training sessions. She was speaking at a showcase for Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs held at PIXEL Labs on 17 Feb that was attended by divers, educators and other industry experts.

Realistic training

During a simulated dive, trainees will be guided to identify various marine organisms along the reef and input their responses using their Samsung VR headsets. Instructors are able to virtually and verbally guide trainees through some of the skills required for coral reef monitoring and trainee responses can be recorded in real time using Hiverlab’s immersive presentation and communication system called Storyhive.

The 3D corals in the simulation are so realistic that many participants have tried reaching for them, revealed Dr Siti Maryam Yaakub, senior marine ecologist at DHI Water & Environment. “You can actually experience it in almost real, virtual life. It's a real (diving) dry run,” she said. Even the water clarity is reflective of an average dive in Singapore, she added.

Not just fun and games

Once confined largely to the realm of gaming, the scope of VR technology has expanded in recent years. IMDA, for instance, is working with production company Beach House Pictures to let students “visit” places of worship and historical sites from the classroom. IMDA also hopes to use VR as a tool for medical students in emergency rooms and operating theatres.

Last October, developer Keppel Land leveraged VR technology to create 360-degree immersive show suites. This was done in a bid to sell apartments at Highline Residences at Kim Tian Road.

However, creating such products is tough work. Since the idea of Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs was mooted last September, the team has been on multiple dives to collect footage and photographs, said Hiverlab founder Ender Jiang.

The company is hoping to tap on crowdsourcing for future content. This could include intertidal and mangrove walks. Once more dive sites and interactive features are added, the product will become “a more complete education and training toolkit. It will make diving more accessible,” he said.

Moving forward, Hiverlab is looking to develop a collaborative platform where 3D scans of corals and reefs can be crowdsourced to recreational divers, marine biologists and non-governmental organisations. This will allow it to cover more coral reefs around the world and create educational programmes or workshops based on the data, it explained. 

Members of the public can look forward to trying out the prototype of Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs at PIXEL Labs at National Design Centre and Jurong Regional Library in the month of March.

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