Technology is incredible these days. It keeps us connected, lets us see unbelievable sights and allows us to develop incredible frameworks that can hopefully benefit our world. One such technology is virtual reality (VR) – a device that authorises users to immerse themselves in a seemingly new world and experience it with 360 degree vision.

Marine biology students and volunteers interested in marine conservation can look to benefit from Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs, a collaborative product initiated by Hiverlab, a VR content production company, DHI Water & Environment, the environmental consultants and experts in water environments, and the Info-comm Media Development Authority (IMDA)’s PIXEL Labs.

Currently in prototype stage, Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs is a unique training tool that features the coral reefs at Sisters’ Islands Marine Park, in an interactive VR underwater simulation. It enhances training of marine biologists and reef monitoring volunteers, as they learn methods in the assessment and monitoring of coral reefs, orientate themselves on monitoring protocols and practice their identification skills in a virtual setting, before they embark on actual dives. Unlike in an underwater scenario, with Eyes on Habitat, instructors are able to virtually and verbally guide trainees through coral reef monitoring skills and trainee responses can be tallied in real time using Hiverlab’s proprietary multi-user immersive presentation and communication system called StoryhiveTM .During the ‘dive’, they will be guided to identify the various marine organisms along the reef and input their responses using their Samsung VR headsets.

The ability to guide and communicate effectively with trainees is important, as diving for purposes of data collection and monitoring faces different issues as compared to leisure dives. The issues include having to overcome limited visibility, usually experienced in Singapore waters, as well as the limitation of communication to visual cues and hand signals while training large groups of students or volunteers in habitat monitoring of underwater environments. For those who do not have the opportunity to dive, Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs allows them to experience and appreciate the biodiversity of Singapore’s coral reefs.

A group test out the VR capabilities

Ender Jiang, Founder of Hiverlab, said, “Hiverlab works at the intersection of technology innovation and content production. For years we have been developing immersive technology to enhance VR storytelling and communication experiences. We see long-term value in this initiative where corals are digitised in the 3D format and training sessions are conducted in an interactive immersive environment. Moving on, we hope to make it a global movement, to empower more people to share their knowledge about corals and learn about corals with similar methods.”

Angeline Poh, Assistant Chief Executive (Content & Innovation), IMDA commented, “PIXEL Labs strongly supports the development of ideas into creative solutions. We are happy to have been a part of Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs’ innovation journey.” She added, “At IMDA, we view VR as a key example of convergence between infocomm and media. We want to empower Singaporeans and the industry with the possibilities and benefits that this convergence brings. Such collaborations with the industry, as well as the embracing of experimentation and innovation, will create value as we progress in our Smart Nation journey.”

Dr. Siti Maryam Yaakub, a Senior Marine Ecologist with DHI’s Research Center says “DHI is always keen to explore technologies that will allow us to better visualise and communicate the many challenges we work on in water environments. We are very pleased to lend our expertise to such an innovative project. There is also a common misconception that very little lives in Singapore’s waters. This simply isn’t true and placing this VR experience in Singapore showcases the biodiversity of its coral reefs and lends a twist to the usual underwater VR experience which features crystal clear blue waters.”

User-friendly, it allows biologists to study the reefs in an interactive way, without getting wet

Following the launch of this VR training assessment prototype, one of the future plans is to develop a collaborative platform, where 3D scans and photogrammetry of corals and reefs can be crowdsourced to recreational divers, marine biologists and non-governmental organisations, so as to cover more coral reefs around the world and create educational programs or workshops based on the data. For the public who are keen on underwater photography, Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs may also provide new avenues for them to digitise underwater environments, beyond normal photography.

In terms of 3D scanning, there is potential for Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs to be developed further, in terms of the development of capabilities to complement underwater environment monitoring. This includes changes in reef structure and the complexity of these changes over time. TheHydrous, a pioneer coral digitisation NGO from the United States, is one of the first few partners who is keen to collaborate with Hiverlab on this global initiative by sharing resources and co-creating content. The goal is to raise awareness of ocean ecosystem conservation for greater social and environmental impact.

A standalone prototype will be made available to the public at PIXEL Labs at National Design Centre and Jurong Regional Library for the month of March 2017.

A user experiencing the underwater world through the headset

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