Corals dive into virtual reality.
Most of us will never experience exploring the deep sea in a submarine. But thanks to 3D imaging and virtual reality, we can now get a digitized, 360-degree look at life deep underwater.
Marine biologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) are scanning underwater objects, including corals, rocks, and wreckage, with a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV). The scans then come to life as detailed 3D objects you can view in VR through Sketchfab, a 3D content hosting service.
An ROV pilot captures high-definition video from all sides of an object and then grabs thousands of individual stills from the footage. These images help generate a 3D object pixel by pixel in a process known as structure-from-motion photogrammetry, which is similar to how Google’s satellites map buildings.
Virtual images of deep sea objects can prove valuable to researchers in more ways than one. From MBARI:
“Biologists are often interested in the amount of biomass (living material) in a particular habitat. A 3D scan of a rocky outcrop allows special software to virtually “remove” the rock, so that scientists can measure biomass growing on top of it. Similarly, scientists can use the software to examine and measure delicate deep-sea creatures, like jellies and squids without the damage or disturbance caused by physical collection.”
Ben Erwin is the pilot of the ROV Don Ricketts and a VR enthusiast. He learned how to turn images into 3D objects at a previous research job using software called PhotoScan.
“Basically this all started with hyper-nerdism,” Erwin told MBARI. “VR has always captivated me, and when decent VR headsets were finally released in 2016, the time seemed right.”
Erwin has big plans for VR. He’s looking at implementing a system to control ROVs through VR and view their surroundings in 360-degrees via 3D panoramic cameras. Erwin said he’d like to see the system showcased as part of an exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The pilot has also made his own VR experience “where you can teleport yourself inside a larvacean’s mucus filter.” He created the model using laser scans of the tadpole-like creatures.
“I made it about the size of a building, so you can virtually walk through it,” he said. “Who knows what insights a scientist can gain when their perspective shifts from a computer screen to this kind of virtual experience?”
You can see more of MBARI’s 3D scans and follow their work on Sketchfab.