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Virtual Displays: Technology and a More Humane Future for Whales and Dolphins?

Technology is second-nature to most of us and is applied, relied upon, and integrated into most aspects of our daily life from a very early age. Technological advances have changed the face of practically every industry and hold promise for confronting some of the world’s most intractable problems, including hunger, disease, drought, and energy shortages. Technology may also provide a possible source of hope in our efforts to see an end to captive whale and dolphin displays. The power and potential of virtual reality, and other emerging and innovative technologies, may provide us with very real solutions to the problem of captivity.

By replacing captive dolphin displays with interactive, immersive, and even individualized experiences that connect people with whales and dolphins in unique, stimulating, and exciting ways, these technologies provide us with enhanced opportunities for education and entertainment without the tremendous cost to whales and dolphins confined in captive environments, and the wild populations from which they are taken.

In order to connect with these beings, raise awareness to their global plight, and develop the empathy necessary to engender concern and care, we need to find non-extractive, engaging, and more compassionate solutions that enables us to forge connections with these amazing creatures in ways that do not exact an unspeakable toll on their health or welfare or that require their lifetime confinement in sterile captive environments.

An alternative future for captive whales and dolphins might mean a variety of things, and along a progressive continuum away from their confinement in concrete pools strictly for entertainment purposes. Existing displays can be adapted or replaced, and individuals can be moved to seaside sanctuaries that would provide a more natural quality of life for the duration of a captive’s lifespan. The primary drivers and concerns associated with shifting the current model of captive display towards a more humane future include the improvement in welfare and quality of life for individual whales and dolphins; placement of individuals in sustainable long-term environments as facilities phase down and eliminate their captive collections; withdrawal of facilities from international trade and inhumane transport and capture methods; and responsiveness to consumer attitudes and preferences. Virtual technologies hold promise and offer us a glimpse of what a captivity-free experience could look like.

WDC is supportive of any virtual or alternative model that has the potential to stimulate demand for a new and unique type of interaction and appreciation for these amazing creatures and that replaces the current model that relies upon the brutal capture, transport, and lifetime confinement of whales and dolphins in sterile environments.  In some of their forms, these virtual applications have the potential to go viral and global relatively quickly, fostering global connections that were not possible just decades ago.

One promising virtual initiative in development is Vision NEMO, a virtual and immersive aquarium experience that doesn’t rely on the capture, transport and confinement of whales, dolphins, and other marine life, but rather relies on technology to provide an interactive sensory experience and journey through 3D animated images and sounds.

Another is LIGHTANIMAL, an initiative that involves the projection and display of life-size, interactive and graphically-realistic whale and dolphin imagery onto surfaces. According to the project’s innovators, LIGHTANIMAL creatures decide and move on their own.

Yet another project utilizing cutting-edge virtual reality technology is EON Reality’s virtual aquarium.   These applications provide state-of-the-art 3D display technology for stereoscopic viewing, whether from portable tablets and PCs, IMAX-type viewing rooms, or smaller immersive dome experiences.

Finally, another promising application is the ‘I Am Dolphin’ app that has been developed by a team of researchers, computer scientists, engineers, and artists at Johns Hopkins Medical center. Although the delivery of this application is currently different than the virtual aquarium projects and technologies, I Am Dolphin provides an opportunity to interact with a virtual dolphin in a game format, and was originally developed as part of a larger project to help stroke victims recover the use of their limbs. It is hoped that this application, more accessible and personal as it can be downloaded onto a personal computing device such as an iPhone or iPad, can inspire youth around the globe to care about dolphins, such as in Japan where over 16,000 dolphins are permitted to be killed under government quotas in 2014 alone.

All of these scalable applications could allow a tailored and personal visitor experience with virtual whales and dolphins, meeting the public’s desire for interactive encounters while shaping a new consumer demand that is not reliant upon the suffering associated with the current aquarium model that offers captive displays. It is hoped that engagement with such interactive and immersive virtual experiences might engender empathy and awareness towards whales and dolphins and support a groundswell of public support for their global protection.

Such technologies can be projected onto the blue walls of the empty tanks, or in the visitor centres of sanctuaries, or on the phones of millions of people eager to learn, and ready to appreciate, whales and dolphins while keeping them–and protecting them–in their natural environments. In addition, such technology can be utilized in tandem with live web cams that could connect to field research stations and underwater outposts that feed images in real time to facilities employing these alternative displays.

Virtual reality and other immersive and interactive displays provide the aquarium industry with an opportunity to focus on education and conservation, rather than extraction and perpetual confinement of whales and dolphins that imposes a deadly toll on individuals and wild populations.

In a world of increasing reliance upon all things technological, the potential for such virtual solutions to captivate the imaginations and attention of people of all ages and provide meaningful connections with whales and dolphins is limitless. We welcome these technologies and the influence they might have upon the ever-evolving debate about the future of captive display.

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