It’s an alien world. Through your “goggles,” you see the water surface rippling above. As you descend to the sandy bottom, which is dotted with seagrass, bubbles gurgle upwards. Sharks and whales swim around. And in the face of the ocean’s immensity, you feel humbled.
Jacques Cousteau, often called the father of scuba diving, once said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”
Dhruv Jain, who is a master of science candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, knows firsthand the meditative spell scuba divers feel beneath the waves.
“I experience the kind of peace one can only expect to feel with the freedom of weightlessness,” Jain told R&D Magazine. “I found the underwater experience to be rejuvenating; it is emotional, and almost spiritual. It was a beautiful experience in a totally different world full of flora and fauna.”
For some, scuba diving is an impossibility. Some are afraid of water, others can’t afford the necessary equipment. But virtual reality can act as a bridge to the experience, and Jain and colleagues have designed a scuba simulator called the “Amphibian.” The system is designed to incorporate five different sensations, including sight, hearing, kinesthetic sense, temperature, and balance.
“Scuba diving is physically and mentally challenging, and is not for everyone,” Jain said. “I thought, what can I do to put people in an ocean environment in a convenient and relaxing way?”
Users of the system lie suspended on a motion platform with their arms and legs outstretched, suspended in a harness. An Oculus Rift headset and headphones simulate the sights and sounds of an underwater environment, and an array of sensors simulate buoyancy, drag, and temperature.
Embedded flex sensors and inertial measurement units track both hand and leg movement. Additionally, users can grab underwater objects and sense physical feedback.
For Jain, the “Amphibian” project wasn’t simply about recreating the scuba diving experience. It was about recreating the effects of disabilities. Jain, who is partially deaf, said that sometimes it is a struggle to fit in with his disability. However, sometimes he finds it liberating.
“All I have to do is turn off my hearing aid to (go) into a different world and find myself in a free space, floating and at peace,” he said.
In diving, he found an analogue for the deaf experience. Underwater, sound travels five times faster than in air, and the human ear is unable to pinpoint a sound’s source effectively. The dampening effects extend to taste, smell, and touch.
“Diving creates a limited sensory environment too and allows me to be free-floating and peaceful,” Jain added. “It is a powerful connection that I could leverage to create an unbinding experience for everyone.”
A research paper on the “Amphibian” can be read here. It was accepted to the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, scheduled May 7-12 in San Jose, Calif.
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