In order to build a system that takes advantage of all these phenomena, we designed a unique system that comprises a proprietary waterproof VR headset, a flotation band with an elastic tether attached to weight at the shallow end of any pool. We call this system DIVR and it takes advantage of all the effects mentioned to enable a more calm, meditative experience that promotes curiosity and awe, giving users a completely unparalleled sense of presence.
Our headset uses a patent pending technology to use water as part of the magnification medium, which keeps the headset neutrally buoyant by flooding it with water, and has a built in sound system that transfers the sound through the water as well as through the headset using bone conduction. This headset is now in its third generation and we have been making it more ergonomic and easier to use with every tweak. The tension in the tether is calibrated to allow a certain degree of free roaming that allows users to swim around, but keeps them within a certain radius and prevents them from coming in contact with other users or the sides of the pool. The flotation band keeps users from having to constantly make movements to stay afloat. The entire system can be put in place and removed within minutes.
Finally, floating in water seems to interrupt the vestibular system or the inner ear’s ability to sense orientation, acceleration and velocity, probably due to the lack of gravity while floating. This effect is currently used in aquatic physiotherapy to treat vestibular dysfunctions such as vertigo and dizziness. In effect it means that aquatic virtual reality users feel no motion sickness when there are velocity and position changes in the virtual world, as there is no cognitive dissonance associated with it, since the inner ear does not have the ability to make this comparison in water.
Our DIVR experiences, although gentle, include a lot of forward motion (such as being on an underwater drift dive) and even use strong downward motion (when floating above the earth by the space station). We have created experiences that have gentle changes in velocity but include large position changes over the course of each piece, all of them free from motion sickness.
We got this insight early in the development process of this technology. Our original vision was to have 6DOF tracking built in, and having developed VR tracking systems previously, this was naturally interesting to us. But as soon as we started framing the problem, we realized that it was going to be incredibly difficult to track both at the surface and below the surface of the water. There are many detriments to achieving a high fidelity tracking system underwater, including occlusion due to bubbles, and the absorption of infrared wavelengths underwater (which is the basis of almost all optical motion tracking), and the complexity of using sound waves for high precision.
I had previously designed a LIDAR based underwater camera trap using a specific wavelength of blue-green lasers to get around the problem of light being diffused and absorbed in the water column, in order to photograph and identify Manta Ray individuals. This technique in theory could be used to head and hand tracking, but is fraught with peril. The only known successful attempt at underwater motion tracking, at the time of writing, is by James Cameron who invented underwater motion tracking techniques in order to film for his upcoming Avatar series. As he puts it : “basically, whenever you add water to any problem, it just gets ten times harder”. It turns out that experiencing VR in water actually lets you get away without needing 6DOF to a large extent.
We recently developed DIVR+ in partnership with SubSea Systems, which is meant to be a more exhilarating version of DIVR with jets, haptics and sensory feedback, but still embodying the core principles we employ in DIVR. In this experience we up the ante, and include corkscrews and stronger acceleration curves, all without motion sickness, even though users are in a static position. We’ve had countless users comment that they felt that they truly traveled large distances in that time.
By now it is well known that virtual reality can positively affect empathy in users, but our hunch was that the combination of the mammalian dive effect, neutral buoyancy and VR might have an even greater impact. In our tests and deployments in the field, we have received anecdotal reports from hundreds of users that they were overwhelmed by emotion at times and felt deeply connected to the virtual marine animals.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, led by professor Jeremy Bailenson (an advisor to Ballast) is currently quantifying some of these effects. The lab is working with Ballast, to understand how the combination of water and virtual reality can both cognitively (how do we perceive distance, and speed when doing VR in water?) and psychologically (do people feel more connected to the ocean after these experiences?) affect users, specifically towards building empathy, and will soon be publishing a set of papers based on their research.
When we started out in 2017, MIT Technology Review wrote an article about the initial prototype of the technology, and we were subsequently contacted by waterparks who were interested in putting these in their properties. We ended up building a VR waterslide system with a German partner which funded the growth of our company, and eventually built the VR snorkeling system into a fully fledged product today. We’ve had over half a million paid uses at our customers sites, been showcased at numerous trade shows and film festivals including Sundance Film Festival, and have built a profitable company in that time. We have installed our systems in over 15 countries at some of the top waterparks in the world, and are adding more every quarter.
When COVID-19 hit, we assumed the worst since waterparks all around the world started shutting down. But as things are opening up, we’ve seen a surge of demand from waterparks who are looking to attract customers back to their locations. From the inception of our first system in Germany, we’ve built strict health and sanitation protocols into the product, since headsets are being shared by hundreds of users in a day. These protocols have given us a headstart in the post-COVID era, and combined with our revenue share business models, which lowers upfront costs for customers, we are in a great position to keep growing and expanding our customer base.
None of this would have happened had we not experimented with something that sounded almost like a joke at the time (“water and VR?”). I believe we’re still scratching the surface of the abilities of this magical combination. We’re currently applying this technology to promote mindfulness and for therapy, and we believe aquatic VR can be a powerful tool in these fields.