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Insights EDU

The Magical Combination of Water and Virtual Reality Part 1

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Ando Shah | Ballast Technologies | Chief Technology Officer

13 Jul 2020 | 5 min read

It was a milky sort of darkness, where I could barely see my own hands or my body; like being dunked in clam chowder. A look at my feet suggested that I must be underwater, having fins on my feet, floating weightless and releasing bubbles with every breath. I felt a bit dazed and loopy, not entirely sure how I got there, and wondered if someone had slipped an edible in my morning coffee. 

It must be the effects of nitrogen narcosis I told myself; I must be on a dive, and being suspended at neutral buoyancy with such diffuse lighting might be due to the immense amount of suspended plankton in the water. At least with this realisation, I knew my brain was coming back online and I was able to quickly conclude where I was – off the coast of Mozambique, having come here to study manta rays.

Things were starting to make sense again. Instinctively I looked at my dive computer which read 23 meters – ‘phew’! This relief was only temporary though, as I found myself surrounded by whales, each bigger than a schoolbus, getting closer by the second.

More brain cells coming alive. But why am I alone? I must have lost my dive group, a huge red flag in diving safety rules. And I could hear whales everywhere, getting really close judging by their calls. With the return to reality also came the gravity of my situation: I was deep underwater, alone, poisoned by the excess nitrogen in my blood, and surrounded by animals that could extinguish me with a casual flick of their fins. 

The sound of my heart hammering in my ears got louder, and fear surged in my veins. In those moments of panic, confusion and bile churning fear of having gone too deep into an alien world with my childhood fears jumping me, everything suddenly went still, like being injected with serenity. The whales had started singing, so loud and near that it felt like whale song was vibrating and resonating in my chest cavity, almost as if it were welling up from within me! 

Something shifted inside me, and I let go of the fear and uncertainty and was enveloped by the otherworldly music of these incredible creatures, floating entranced like the composers themselves. Shortly the plankton soup cleared, along with my brain fog, and the whales swam away, the spell was being lifted. I found my dive group and we surfaced. With a maniacal grin I realized how incredibly lucky I was in having such incredible adventures. Even though I never saw the whales that day, I felt them, and felt connected to them as if we were characters in the same story.

I grew up in urban India, terrified of the ocean, having watched Jaws too early in life. It didn’t help that my grandfather died in a swimming accident and the family’s reaction was to stay away from water at all times. I remember going on holidays to the beach, and my parents making sure we stayed out of the water, tiptoeing backwards as the waves broke. 

In my early twenties, I learnt to scuba dive so I could overcome this fear of water and the open ocean, and thereby learn to swim. It’s certainly a strange way to go about it, but it worked wonders for me. That fateful day in Mozambique after my encounter with the singing humpback whales, I saw a way to use technology to connect humans back with nature and infuse them with awe. 

What if it was possible to combine water and virtual reality to allow anyone to have this experience and build this bond with nature, with something bigger than themselves, in the safety and comfort of a swimming pool?

A few years later, I met my co-founder Stephen Greenwood in California, who had a similar vision after watching an episode of Stranger Things, and wondered the same thing. So we conducted an experiment with an underwater VR headset he had glued together, and the experience turned out to be much more impressive than we expected. These experiments gave birth to aquatic VR, and co-founded Ballast Technologies, along with content specialist, Atlas Roufas.

It was because a set of psychological and physiological effects were coming to play together, and it blew our minds! In the last three years, we’ve built a successful LBE-VR company based on the premise that combining water and VR not only provide an amazing experience, it actually brings you closer to the subjects of those experiences and connects you to your own body and senses in a way that we can only describe as an ‘in-body experience’, akin to mindfulness.

Being submerged in a body of water, or even splashing your face with water, will trigger the mammalian dive response or reflex. When this happens, a number of physiological behaviors, like lowering your heart rate and causing the vessels in your skin and extremities to constrict so your blood shifts to your heart and brain. This reflex can help save your life if you plunge through the ice into a frozen lake. The water’s stimulation of the trigeminal nerves is prompting the heart to slow down, which can naturally reduce anxiety, and promote calm. The chatter in your head also seems to die down, and a sort of tranquility can pervade you. Anyone who has been scuba diving or freediving will know this feeling intuitively.

As New York Times bestselling author of The Blue Mind, Wallace J Nichols (my mentor and reason for ending up in Mozambique in the first place) puts it, “being near, in, on, or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do”. He calls this state, the ‘Blue Mind’, and a recent study even showed that people who live near the ocean report feeling less stress and better health than those who don’t. 

There’s a growing body of research that supports this notion. Then there are benefits from floating – people who float, relaxing in pools of still, tranquil water often register a change from more active brainwaves to theta brainwaves. This has been shown to reduce stress and clear the mind. Beyond relaxation, these slower waves are credited with unleashing a flow of creative ideas.

About the author:

Ando Shah is an experience and systems designer, mixed-media artist and a virtual reality pioneer. Trained as a chip designer, he spent his formative years working in Silicon Valley designing hardware for video streaming and renewable energy systems for off-grid communities. He created one of the first 360 capture cameras, created and directed multiple VR experiences selected at Cannes Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, Geneva International Film Festival and World XR Forum amongst others. He co-created the world’s first underwater camera trap and software identification system that is used to automatically identify individual manta rays. Ando is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Ballast Technologies, which gave birth to the field of Aquatic virtual reality. He has designed and built the systems and experiences for innovative and award-winning products such as the VRSlide and DIVR, and holds multiple patents in these fields. His work has been featured in the New Yorker, CNET, The BBC, Forbes, Digital Trends, MIT Technology Review, WIRED and Freethink.

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