Immersive underwater VR is just a headset and two water wings away.
Imagine the sensation of effortlessly floating past the International Space Station as you drift through outerspace in zero gravity. Picture yourself bobbing on the surface of tropical caribbean waters as you gaze at the beautifully intricate coral patterns and exotic passing fish below. These are the kinds of weightless experiences Stephen Greenwood, director of creative development at Discovery Digital Networks, and Allan Evans, cofounder of headset maker Avegant, are creating with their custom VR headset designed for underwater use.
Admittedly just a fun side project between the busy innovators, the prototype device is powered by a waterproof Android smartphone attached to a 3-D-printed plastic block containing two biconvex lenses. The custom box is then secured inside a standard snorkeling mask using black tape which prevents any light from leaking in. Audio is delivered via a Finis underwater MP3 player that utilizes bone conduction to emit sound. The result is an isolating experience that utilizes the freedom of mobility water brings to realistically simulate various weightless environments.
“I think there’s a little more of a suspension of disbelief when you’re in a radically different environment,” Greenwood said. “When you don’t have a sense of the ground or gravity or what’s up or what’s down, it makes it that much more believable.”
Whatever the purpose, Allan Evans and Stephen Greenwood are confident the device could see extensive use in physical therapy, entertainment and, of course, scuba-diving simulations. Rachel Metz of MIT Technology Review was able to try some of the compatible experiences herself in the pool of Greenwood’s apartment building:
“The first experience had me floating above the International Space Station while David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” played on a loop. I found that I didn’t want to do much moving; it was relaxing to just hang, suspended in the water (though the visuals made it feel more like outer space), occasionally twisting around to see what was behind, above, or below.”
After I’d spent some time checking out the ISS—minutes, probably, but it was hard to tell how much time passed—Greenwood switched to another VR experience that was a little closer to my reality: an underwater scene with colorful fish, peppy jazz music playing in the background. Hanging out with the fish was a little more fun, despite the fact that water started seeping into the snorkel mask as I swam in circles to investigate the world around me.
As previously stated this is merely a neat little side project for both Stephen and Allan, however that doesn’t make this project any less exciting. Player movement has long been the achilles’ heel of virtual reality; an intricate puzzle that’s yet to be cracked. Combining the weightless sensation of swimming with the captivating video and audio of virtual reality is a major step forward towards more riveting, full-body experiences. Just make sure you have a lifeguard present before you hop in. Or at last strap on some damn water wings…
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