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Lasting legacies

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North Atlantic right whale - Peter Flood

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Hysazu Photography

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Credit: Seacoast Science Center

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Leaping harbour porpoise

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Future's made of….

(….Virtual Reality)

Virtual Reality (VR) may well be the future of how we experience many parts of our lives, even changing how we interact with other people and how our entire society functions.  The possibilities are almost endless.  Users enter an immersive environment that they can explore, interact with, and listen to.  It can allow us to visit and discover things or places we may never physically be able to go – from the ocean depths to the surface of the sun, a remote island or a trip back in time.  VR can also bring us close to whales and dolphins, in their habitat, without confining these amazing beings to a concrete tank, giving us a peek into the life of wild whales and dolphins.

In a strange overlap of technology and advocacy in the present day, many voices opposing captivity for whales and dolphins believe that VR can take the place of actually holding these remarkable beings in tanks.  An entirely artificial, virtual encounter can allow people to experience whales and dolphins up close, often in simulated natural settings, without condemning individuals to the cruelty of captivity.  The technology is advancing in leaps and bounds (or breaches and lob-tails, in whale terms), but can’t quite be considered widespread yet. 

I recently had the chance to explore a new VR exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, called “The Blu: An Underwater VR Experience.”  With a heavy, awkward headset and a hand-held controller, users enter an underwater world to explore several scenes depicting different marine ecosystems – the first of which features an enormous blue whale giving the user some very close side-eye.  The visuals were stunning, the foolish feeling was mostly forgotten, and the technology was impressive, but there was something missing from the overall experience.

Without prior knowledge of what I was seeing, I would have no idea what kind of flora and fauna were virtually appearing around me as I moved through the habitats.  The controller allowed users to interact with the scene, and certain aspects responded to touch, but there was no one advising me that maybe it’s not the best idea to take a swing at a sea jelly.  I was amazed by the visuals and the detail as we moved from a shipwreck to a reef setting to a whale fall, as I’m sure others experiencing the VR exhibit were.  But how many other participants were fully grasping the amazing last scene, depicting the unique micro-ecosystem that develops from the body of a dead whale, giving life even after his or her death?  Did my VR companions understand not only the beauty of what they were seeing, but the complex dynamics of the reef scene, and appreciate the movement of the anemones that recoiled at their virtual “touch?”  I wanted to learn more about how shipwrecks turn into artificial habitats and become part of the ocean environment.  I wanted more than just the visual experience – I wanted to learn. 

Most importantly, I also wanted to connect the amazing virtual experience to conservation – as in, if we don’t change the impact of human activity on this Earth, all of this will be gone.  Education can be so much more than reading books or online articles, as shown by this incredible, virtual experience, which was fully enhanced by the amazing and astounding visuals.  There is so much potential in VR to be another way to learn about and experience things, especially by immersing people into a brand new environment – our virtual “dive master” guide helping to start the VR experience could also be our teacher.  Audio of ambient ocean sounds could be augmented with the voice of a virtual dive partner, discussing what each scene was depicting and enhancing the overall experience and story (as in, “yikes! Don’t punch the jellies.  They sting!”). 

There’s no stopping the advancement of VR technology and its incorporation into our lives.  Eventually it will probably be part of our daily lives in ways that we can’t begin to anticipate.  By wowing us with visuals and pairing the experience with outreach, the potential to immerse people into these incredible ocean environments could inspire acts of conservation and protection – ensuring that these “virtual representations” are not the last vestige of our oceans and the amazing beings that used to call them home.

Look below to watch a video of “theBlu,” by Wevr.