Our team on research vessel Investigator is using virtual technologies to put people into places, roles and experiences not otherwise possible.
Renowned paleontologist, Ross Gellar from Friends once said: “Here we go. Pivot, pivot, pivot!”
Ross was, of course, talking about carrying a couch up a cramped stairwell. However, he could have been talking about using innovative technologies to create new ways of doing science.
For the team at the Marine National Facility (MNF), operator of research vessel (RV) Investigator, new technologies offer amazing opportunities. We can bring marine science and our audiences closer together. We can deliver remote science, enabling scientists onshore to participate in operations at sea. And we can use virtual reality to create immersive experiences that add new depth to educational content.
Let’s pivot and take a step up some virtual stairs.
Our virtual work experience program
What would seven high school students do if they were given a grant of sea time on our RV Investigator? We found out!
As part of our Virtual Work Experience Program (VWEP), seven high school students joined the MNF for a three-day immersive work experience. Students were helping to plan voyages and manage our ocean research vessel.
Our VWEP is delivered by our Education and Outreach team, and supported by volunteer supervisors. The program enables students to undertake collaborative group projects in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Students work with our researchers and their student team members using collaboration platforms and video conferencing. They gain valuable experience in STEM, as well as new ways of working. All while developing valuable life skills including communication and negotiation.
A virtual voyage
As part of this program, the MNF team set students the task of planning a research voyage.
To help set the scene, we sent students cardboard headsets allowing them to use their phones as virtual reality (VR) goggles. By slotting their phones into the headsets, students could immerse themselves in a range of virtual work experience onboard our RV Investigator. Some examples of these experiences include working in labs processing krill samples, deploying ocean sampling equipment, and joining the staff on the viewing deck.
Through VR, students were able to see life through the eyes of scientists and crew working on board. This technology placed students in the middle of the ocean. This provided a better picture of what life in those roles would look like. These experiences give students the opportunity to explore to a degree that would be impossible in a classroom.
COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns have been a strong driver for virtual programs. However, virtual experiences aren’t just beneficial in lockdown. They also provide valuable opportunities for students in regional and remote areas. Using virtual technology can help break down barriers imposed by distance.
Taking land-locked audiences to sea
Connecting with audiences, to inform and inspire them about marine science, is a priority for us. We seize every opportunity to open the ship up in port for tours, visits and education. However, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly changed the level of access we could provide.
Stepping up to meet the challenge, the MNF team has continued to pivot by offering virtual tours and VR experiences. We’ve added VR technology to our outreach toolkit. We’ve used it at public events including the Festival of Bright Ideas event in Hobart.
Opportunities to engage with research at sea is also available on-demand through real-time technologies. These technologies help to provide direct access to the ship via live data feeds and 24/7 live stream cameras.
Beyond engaging with public audiences and virtual work experience capability, these technologies are also bringing new research and collaboration opportunities for scientists.
Increasing collaboration through remote science
Virtual technologies and innovative approaches are helping remove barriers from participation and collaboration in at-sea science. These enhancements are increasing researcher access to opportunities without the need to leave the lab (or lounge room).
One example is multibeam mapping data. This data can be simultaneously examined by geoscientists, biologists and marine archaeologists. Researchers can look for sample sites for sediment surveys and seafloor habitats that support biological communities. They can also look for signs of shipwrecks and cultural heritage sites. This access to data in real-time allows researchers to coordinate, direct and refine operations with those at sea. This collaboration helps deliver the greatest research benefit and impact.
Taking the pivot to the next step, scientists can now get the team at sea to capture 360-degree vision and audio of activities onboard using special 360-degree cameras. Scientists can upload and share the files with onshore researchers to provide a full immersion into what’s happening at sea. Applications for this technology go far beyond just a voyeuristic interest in what’s happening onboard. It offers opportunities for experts to virtually participate in activities. From commissioning of new equipment and operation planning to safety reviews and scenario training.
Looking ahead, we may not be far away from an even more futuristic approach. One where wearable cameras help researchers share their experiences at sea in real-time.
VR on RV
The applications for virtual technologies in research, education and outreach on sea vessels is endless. These capabilities, and their expanding use in future, will provide opportunities for our researchers to maintain meaningful connections with other scientists, stakeholders and the public. Anywhere, anytime and under any conditions. All you need is some bandwidth and a screen, and we can bring you on board.