To the rhythmic gurgle of my breathing, I glide along in a turquoise sea. To either side a coral reef stretches as far as I can see. I shine my flashlight down and discover a tiny treasure chest – an underwater geocache. But I don’t swim down to open it, because up ahead is something that takes my breath away: a giant hammerhead shark, cruising majestically with tiny remoras nibbling around it like fussy secretaries. It sails away and I surface, pulling off the headset.
“Wow,” I say to Russ Glaeser and Kathie Flood, who are sitting at my dining table. “That was incredible.”
Where I’ve been, of course, is inside virtual reality, a hot technology that’s bursting the boundaries of how we experience our world. And the scuba VR I just experienced is coming to Ocean Fest on June 10, 2018.
“There’s something about this that people connect to emotionally,” says Flood. “Hopefully they’ll be inspired to protect the ocean if they know what’s under it.”
Flood and Glaeser, who together make up the Kirkland-based Cascade Game Foundry, are not your average game coders. They’re both divers themselves – Glaeser moonlights every other week in the big tank at the Seattle Aquarium. And through computer games and VR, they aim to bring that magical underwater world to those of us who haven’t experienced it in real life.
Ex-Microsofties, Glaeser and Flood first started making underwater games a few years ago. “Infinite Scuba,” for regular computer, offers two scenarios: the tropical Chuuk reef in Micronesia near Uman Island, and Lover’s Reef in Belize. Both come with the native fish and marine life you’d see if you dived at those sites, and Chuuk also has a digital replica of the sunken, 270-foot WWII ship Gosei Maru. As the game progresses you choose your diving avatar from a rainbow of races and genders, learn about equipment as you put it on, chat with scientists about local ecology and get diving tips.
If you dive below 90 feet your avatar can even experience narcosis – that dizzy, dangerous condition that can affect unprepared divers who stay down too deep or ascend too quickly.
But most of the time, the game is fun, combining learning with sheer visual beauty and quests like picking up ocean trash for extra points. Everything is exhaustively researched, with Glaeser and Flood watching endless dive videos to get the visuals, and quizzing divers and scientists about local marine life.
That’s immersive enough. But just a few months ago, Cascade released their first VR experience – “Diving with Sylvia.” Inspired by the famous diver and ocean scientist Sylvia Earle, it’s less of a game and more of a ride, as your body is gently propelled through the Belize reef. You have control over your flashlight and air gauge, but mostly you’re looking all around you at the astonishing array of coral, fish and sharks that glide harmlessly by.
None of it is scary – and that’s by design.
“There are enough dangerous games around,” Glaeser says. “We want to make people feel comfortable.”
And that has profound effects.
“One woman at a show kept getting to the front of the line, then pulling out,” Flood remembers. “Finally, at the very end, she sat down and put the headset on. I had to hold her hands; she was so afraid of water. When she finished she got up and said, ‘Wow – I have to have swim lessons.’”
Another woman who hadn’t been able to dive for five years cried a little, marveling at how similar the VR was to her own diving.
But that’s not the biggest thing about virtual reality. Studies have shown that experiencing another view of life this way can dramatically increase empathy – good news for the ocean. Transported to the underwater world, humans can see first-hand how beautiful and fragile it is – and start to care about protecting it.
Cascade will bring both Infinite Scuba and Diving with Sylvia to Ocean Fest, with laptops and headsets for folks to try both out. Don’t be shy about putting on that headset. It’s your chance to dive deep into another world.