re:view – sub:marine: In Virtual Underwater Worlds

Letting people experience the depths of the oceans: Thanks to virtual reality, visitors to this year’s re:publica where able to get closer to our planet’s sea dwellers than ever before. But how can we sustainably make use of the oceans without endangering them? How can we protect the seas, coral reefs and their inhabitants? Researchers probed for answers to these questions in numerous talks within the framework of the sub:marine topic.

Seas and oceans make up approximately 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. They are home to a diversity of ecosystems and offer important habitats for an immense variety of species of sea dwellers. And yet, many of the mechanisms of the world’s oceans are still completely unexplored. Others have only just now been discovered.

For example, the water vortices which form off the coasts of Germany. Coastal researchers from the Helmholtz Centre Geesthacht (HZG) reported on their hunt for the previously unknown ocean whirlpools in “Uhrwerk Ozean – Grundlagenforschung, VR und Twitter-Trend“ (Clockwork Ocean – Fundamental Research, VR and Twitter Trends). They first discovered these small gear wheels of the sea ten years ago. Today they know just how important they are for the nutrient supply of entire ecosystems:

“Similarly to the gear wheels of a clockwork, the vortices interlock. They are important for algae production and thereby become an essential component and force in the food chain”, stated Burkard Baschek, Head of the Helmholtz Centre. Though being this important, the vortices themselves are relatively small, measuring only a few kilometres in size and disintegrating within twelve hours, making the search for them very challenging. 


VR and 360 degrees let the viewer dive into the research

The Helmholtz Centre created the cross-media project “Uhrwerk Ozean” (Clockwork Ocean) to make their findings available to a large audience. The 360 degree movie, which was shown at re:publica, lets the viewer dive into a coastal vortex and swim next to jellyfish and luminescent photobacterium.

Virtual reality also offers completely new possibilities for research into the conservation of endangered ecosystems, as Dr. Hauke Reuter from the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research explained in “Corals, Reefs and VR”. “Coral reefs belong to the most beautiful, but also most threatened ecosystems” Reuter stated. “If large parts of the Great Barrier Reef were to be destroyed, it would take decades before they could even begin to grow back.” The biggest threats to the reefs are climate change, excessive fishing, as well as the marine pollution through humans.


Keep threatened systems alive virtually 

Anyone who has ever dreamed of swimming next to the bright and colourful corals and fish of the Great Barrier Reef was able to at least fulfil their dream virtually at re:publica. Marine biologist Reuter also works on virtual coral reefs in the laboratory. “The development of the corals in different ecological conditions can be analysed and predicted with the help of virtual reality”, he explained. “At the same time, we also want to create a greater awareness of the beauty and complex needs of the coral reefs through the virtual reality footage.”

Of course, these weren’t the only topics in the sub:marine track at #rp17. You can find an overview of all the panel discussions, talks and workshops here. Video and audio clips can be found in the respective sessions or directly in the audio archive or on YouTube

by Rachelle Pouplier (EJS)

Photo credit: re:publica/Gregor Fischer (CC BY-SA 2.0)BMBF / Wissenschaftsjahr 2016 * 17