Hello there. This is the second in the series of our thoughtful and life-affirming newsletters. This one is all about interactive touchtables and a virtual dive under Sydney Harbour built for the Oculus Rift headset, which is a simple way of delivering virtual reality experiences. And a virtual dive is different to a real dive, which is the place we go for after work drinks.
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Meet The SIMS
Like a lot of Australians over the summer, our thoughts naturally turned to the sun, sea, sand, coastal erosion and the growing threat of ocean acidification. Since mid last year we have been working with the Sydney Institute of Marine Science on their new exhibition, learning about what confronts us and future generations beyond the first line of breakers.
SIMS is a research and training institute based on the shores of Sydney Harbour at picturesque Chowder Bay. SIMS brings together scientists from six universities, as well as a number of state and federal marine agencies, to conduct research on climate change and urbanisation, biological diversity, fisheries, tourism, marine disease and coastal development, which you might call land disease. This year they will be opening their new interpretive centre as an accompaniment to their existing educational programs.
We have developed the interactive and video programs for the exhibition in conjunction with exhibition designers Five Spaces Design and Peter Campbell Design to be housed in the old Submarine Mines Store at the water’s edge. The site itself is reason enough to Uber it to Chowder Bay, but then you add in the café and the kookaburras and you have a lovely day out, complete with some fun and a bucket of marine science.
Look out for the interactive workstations and touchtables on Coastal Erosion, Exploring the Sea Floor, Phytoplankton and the East Australian Current. Interspersed with animations, illustrations, videos and high-resolution imagery of the sea floor, each installation is unique and an important showcase for the research that is being developed at SIMS.
One of the best parts of this project has been the opportunity to work directly with the marine scientists. Our teams have worked together to curate the Institute’s extensive content and choose media that complements each story. We hope this new exhibition, in conjunction with the educational programs that run at SIMS, can contribute to more informed debates at a time when the need for greater public understanding of what’s happening in our oceans could not be more acute.
Dive Another Day
You know those days when you can’t lie in bed any longer and you want to get up and go to work and dive straight into it? And you excitedly rush to your workstation and strap on your Virtual Reality headset and block out the whole world and your meaningless so-called real life? Well, that’s every day round here.
We’ve been developing an Oculus Rift project for the Sydney Institute of Marine Science that is a virtual underwater dive of Sydney Harbour. You put on a headset with lenses and a screen that gives you sense of a 360 degree view as you move your head in any direction. Fascinating and wonderful and it actually does give a different experience than any other screen-based technology. Something happens to your brain where it tells you: you are in a different space. Peter Vergo said that it was a basic human need to immerse yourself in alternate worlds every now and then. It used to be done with stories round a campfire, meditation or alcohol, and now there’s another way.
When we first discussed the project with SIMS, the options were to either create an immersive 360-degree video or make our own 3D environment. The 3D approach was chosen because it meant that we could give visitors control over their movements through the space and we could create a contained environment that showed all the animals we wanted, and frankly it would have been hard to get live bull sharks to perform. SIMS provided a list of creatures that should appear near a rock platform and kelp garden, and we sketched out a plan of the environment and scripted each creature’s behaviour.
Visitors can explore the sea floor, and discover animals such as a blue groper, weedy sea dragon, moray eel, and giant cuttlefish. Corals, sponges and sea urchins encrust a central rock platform, accompanied by a slowly waving kelp forest. Looking up, and they can see their air bubbles float to the surface towards a circling bull shark contemplating its next move.
This new iteration of virtual reality technology is only in its initial stages and as a result there are still several issues that need to be addressed. Some users report feeling simulator sickness – a feeling akin to sea sickness. This is mainly caused by the feeling of moving through a virtual world without your physical body actually moving, and can also be triggered by poor frame rates. Interaction methods are also unsettled and the use of these headsets within public exhibition is still being tested.
Over the past few months, the scale and look of the environment has evolved. We’ve constantly tested the application along the way, working on improving the textures, lighting and various set pieces, and adding visual effects such as particle systems, breathing bubbles and caustic patterns. We’ve also worked with 3D modellers and animators to create the various creatures (and other organisms such as sea tulips and sponges) that now populate the ocean floor. Throughout the entire project, SIMS provided detailed feedback about the colours, textures, and precise movements of each creature. It’s been a challenging and important process finding a balance between the visual impact and performance of the application, as it needs to run extremely smoothly in order to provide the best experience.
This has been a great first Oculus project to work on and we see this sort of program and technology working brilliantly well for all sorts of applications where visitors might explore an environment like a convict ship or the surface of Mars or inside a volcano or be projected forward or back in time to have a deeper experience of a different world.
In the next issue we’ll look at the RaspberryPi – without the Hep A…