National Marine Aquarium marks next phase of Virtual Reality Project with the University of Birmingham

1st June 2017

Researchers at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth and leading academics from the University of Birmingham have come together to launch the next phase of their partnership, which will see new avenues of virtual and augmented reality technology introduced to explore local marine habitats.

The unique collaboration has seen the institutions work together for over a decade to develop innovative virtual reality-based research, exploring how advanced visualisation techniques can be used to better understand our coasts.

First partnering in 2004, the University supported the Aquarium in the creation of a VR representation of Europe’s first artificial reef. The project was based on the Scylla, an ex-Royal Navy Batch 3 Leander Class Frigate, which was scuttled by the Aquarium off Whitsand Bay near Plymouth. The 3D model of the Scylla allowed users to explore the shipwreck in real-time by piloting a virtual remotely operated vehicle using a popular style of gaming hand controller.

During the project the team developed new software techniques in artificial life, which studies and simulates the behaviour of biological organisms and systems. The purpose of the artificial reef was to investigate and predict how natural environments survive, reproduce, colonise and evolve, plus how they may be affected by environmental changes brought about by climate change, extreme weather events or pollution.

The next phase of the partnership will see the Aquarium and University expand their virtual landscape of Wembury Bay, which is a trial project designed to help patients recover mentally and physically from traumatic operations by immersing them into an interactive marine environment. The programme closely links with research undertaken by Dr. Deborah Cracknell, Lead Researcher at the National Marine Aquarium, who is investigating the relaxing benefits that marine environments can have on an individual’s mental wellbeing. The project will also be developed to link to the Aquarium’s Community Seagrass Initiative.

Mark Duchesne, General Manager at the National Marine Aquarium, said: “At the NMA we are committed to investing in projects which will allow us to better understand and preserve marine life. The University of Birmingham is a centre of academic excellence, producing groundbreaking technology, which we have been delighted to harness in Plymouth. Virtual reality provides a unique lens through which to explore otherwise hidden marine environments, making them not just accessible to experts but to all our visitors, as we all have an important part to play in protecting our oceans.”

Professor Robert Stone, Director of the Human Interface Technologies at the University of Birmingham, added: “Our partnership with the NMA has allowed us to develop unique virtual reality software to illuminate new lines of marine research. The technology we are using is developing rapidly and we look forward to exploring unchartered marine realms with the NMA in the years to come.”

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