Illustration av hur VR-upplevelsen kan se ut.
Photo: Ballast Inc. Technologies

Virtual Reality helps people meet the ocean


“A healthy world ocean is crucial for our common future. But to get there, it's not enough just to increase knowledge,” says Géraldine Fauville, researcher in education at the University of Gothenburg. In a unique study, she’s going to investigate if people can connect emotionally with the ocean through advanced underwater VR technology.

Porträtt på Géraldine Fauville
Géraldine Fauville
Photo: Johan Wingborg

A breath-taking depth opens up and fills the world with shimmering corals, large shoals of colourful fish swim by, and a couple of good-natured sea turtles tag along. Then, a giant shark approaches with alarming speed...

No, we are not in the Caribbean, but at the public swimming pool Frölundabadet, outside Gothenburg.

“Totally amazing!” says Angela Wulff, professor in marine ecology, who has just taken off her VR headset and snorkel. “The corals are very realistic, and the fish are great! And I got to follow a humpback whale down towards an old shipwreck. I wanted to reach out my hand and touch it.”

Angela Wulff is one of today's test subjects; more participants are standing line at the end of the pool. Géraldine Fauville's study has created some curiosity among her colleagues. With the help of Virtual Reality (VR), she wants to find a way to bring people closer to the ocean.

“If more people want to take responsibility for the marine environment, it’s not enough to increase knowledge. It’s also crucial that we change our attitudes and behaviour on a daily basis, and that depends a lot on how connected we feel to the ocean, both intellectually and emotionally,” says Géraldine Fauville.

Géraldine Fauville bistår en av de forskare som agerar försökspersoner på Frölundabadet.
Géraldine Fauville assists one of the researchers who are test subjects at Frölundabadet.

The first study of its kind

Géraldine Fauville is both a marine biologist and a researcher in education. A common thread in her research is the idea of Ocean Literacy, which, in short, aims to increase the basic understanding of the importance of the ocean, so that more people can make well-informed decisions in their daily life that benefit the ocean. VR technology has been used before in marine teaching, but in her study, Géraldine takes it a step further. Here, the visual VR experience is combined with a physical one: Immersion in water.

“With underwater VR, you can actually imitate the physical sensation of being in the deep of the ocean. It’s an overwhelming experience. I want to investigate what kind of emotions that are triggered, and if it actually could affect people's connection to the ocean in the long term.

The study is the first of its kind, and is done in collaboration with Stanford University, where she previously held a post doc position to study how VR could be used in marine education. Then, her study was cancelled because of the pandemic, and it’s only now that she can test her hypothesis properly, thanks to a successful collaboration with the public swimming pool Frölundabadet. A corner of the pool is dedicated to her scientific tests.

“As a first step, I investigate the opinions of experts in marine science, and in education, on the potentials and pitfalls of underwater VR for marine education. After that, I will invite the public,” she says.

Bild på Angela Wulff med VR-utrustningen
Angela Wulff, professor of marine ecology, is impressed by her diving experience.

An introduction to the sea

Sometime this winter, she hopes that this will happen. But first, she will interview the researchers who participated and thus be able to refine her method. Which parameters should she focus on when evaluating the experience? And is there a difference between experienced divers, and those who have never before put on a snorkel and looked into the depths?

“Of course, nothing can beat the feeling of actually being in the sea. But not everyone has that opportunity, and I think that underwater VR can work as a substitute, or a good introduction to the real life under the surface,” says Géraldine Fauville.

So far, this idea is confirmed by her subjects. The smell of chlorine mixes with the echo of a group of school children by the trampolines. Some recreational swimmers pass a few meters away. But Angela Wulff is still in the tropics.

“I am a sports diver myself, and I have dived in both the Caribbean, and the Red Sea. But this is close to reality. If you haven't dived before and have this experience, you have to think:‘ Of course we have to take care of the ocean!’”

Text: Per Adolfsson

The VR project

Géraldine Fauville's study is funded by the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet), and is done in collaboration with Stanford University. The equipment was originally created by the company Ballast Technologies Inc. When the initial studies are completed, the project will be carried out in collaboration with secondary schools.