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Marine Biologist Uses Virtual Reality Technology to Bring the Ocean Closer to People

Erica Woolsey, a marine biologist by profession, has witnessed first-hand how marine life and coral reefs are getting affected by climate change. Diving in the ocean multiple times, she felt it was time to do something about it, and she decided to look for ways to raise awareness regarding the damage among people, especially those who cannot witness the damage themselves.

To this end, she started a campaign through The Hydrous, a non-profit organization founded by Woolsey herself. The San Francisco-based non-profit reportedly use VR technology to bring people closer to the ocean. The Hydrous, essentially a collaboration of scientists, divers, and filmmakers, is striving to give people an immersive experience of diving into the sea and create a sense of universal empathy for the ocean. The objective of their effort is to raise awareness about the coral reef damage created by climate change and initiating constructive actions to preserve the aquatic environment.

Woolsey, a 36-year old professional with a great passion for marine life has a deep knowledge of the threats to coral reefs through her two-decade-long experience of underwater exploration. She said that she has seen healthy, vibrant coral reefs turn into something like a ‘moonscape’. She also adds that if the coral reefs go extinct, fish and other animals that depend on them will also die out. In turn, it will affect human societies that rely on the marine ecosystem for livelihood.

Nine-minute virtual journey

This is exactly the experience that The Hydrous team recreated in their award-winning documentary “Immerse”. The film, intended to be watched through a VR headset, takes the viewers on a nine-minute virtual journey led by Woolsey to the coral reefs of Palau in the Western Pacific, providing a 360-degree underwater diving experience. The experience reportedly invokes a strong reaction in the viewers. Woolsey stated that this is the feeling of connection and empathy she counts on that might save the coral reefs and solve the global problem. Immerse premiered in 2019 at the International Ocean Film Festival and has won several awards since then, including the prestigious EarthXFilm 2019 Official Selection.

Saving the World’s Coral Reefs, One Virtual Dive at a Time. Check out the video with your VR-headset to immerse yourself into the wonderous world of the ocean!

Virtual Reality in Pandemic

Although Woolsey had been leading virtual dives for many years now, it is during the global lockdown in 2020 when the virtual dive picked up its pace. Since June 2020, when people were restricted in their homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 1 million people have taken part in these virtual dives. The age group ranges from 8 to 90. Woolsey remarked that the experience connects people not just with the ocean, but with one another. Thus, it acts as a powerful tool to bring us closer to our natural environment. She hopes that in the future, camera technology will allow her team of VR tech to take more people to the uncharted territories in the ocean. They are planning a new VR experience where viewers will play the role of a marine biologist, conducting underwater surveys.

In the end, Woolsey sends out a positive message regarding the ocean. She says the VR diving experience does not just reveal the current state of marine life, but it also points to the ways through which it can be saved. And this is the message she wants the participants to take home with them. She hopefully declares that as the participants ascend from the dive, they ascend on an optimistic note to be brought back on land.

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