The Virtual Reality Revolution Starts Here
Scuba diving certainly isn’t for everyone, but MIT’s new virtual scuba simulator, dubbed Amphibian, could offer those unable or hesitant to dive a cool way to still experience the ocean.
The simulator, which was created by Dhruv Jain, a master’s of science candidate in MIT’s Living Mobile Group, uses virtual reality and a suspended harness to create the feeling of swimming underwater.
Users simply put on an Oculus Rift headset along with headphones and enter the harness such that they are lying on their torso. During the simulation, attached sensors create the effect of buoyancy, drag, and temperature. It also includes an inflatable airbag under the torso that will inflate when the user breathes in and deflate on their exhale, thus, creating the illusion of ascending and descending.
To navigate in the virtual world created by the Amphibian, the user wears gloves with embedded flex sensors and inertial measurement units (IMUs) that are designed to track each hand’s movement. Leg motion is also tracked with IMUs, and users are able to “swim forward” by kicking their legs up and down. All data taken from the sensors is fed into a processing unit that converts the physical motion of hands and legs into virtual movement in the Oculus app and is felt by the user. Another innovation by the system is a two-way interaction between the user and the underwater virtual world. For instance, users can grasp virtual underwater objects such as rocks or crabs using their hands in a grab gesture and sense physical feedback. The sensation of picking up something is conveyed through an inflatable pad, which simulates the texture and shape of the object grabbed, on the palm of each glove.
Realizing disability could be liberating rather than limiting
Amphibian is a technological as well as artistic project for Jain. Jain, who is partially deaf, created the simulator to make people able to experience the liberating effects of disabilities.
“Underwater, our vital senses are dulled and warped. Visual range is limited and magnification is distorted. The senses of smell, taste and touch are severely muted. Hearing is distorted too, since sound travels five times faster in the water,” Jain says. “But in these conditions, I experienced the kind of peace one can only expect to feel with the freedom of weightlessness. Having done 54 dives in the last 10 months, I can call myself a good diver now. And yet every time I dive, I find the underwater experience to be rejuvenating; it is emotional and almost spiritual.”
Amphibian is not Jain’s first technological system to simulate sensory deprivation nor is it his first artwork designed to generate empathy for disabled persons. In Blind Emporium, one of his previous projects, he created a sensory deprivation room in which outside sound and light were completely blocked, forcing participants to navigate the space using touch and following sounds emitted from selected objects. He observed that in projects that “explore absence,” most people still tended to focus on what they lacked instead of what they might gain, so he decided to alter his approach with Amphibian. “People have a negative view of blindness or deafness, thinking that they would find it too difficult to navigate in the world, but my goal was to make people realize that disability is also liberating. When I turn off my hearing aid and close my eyes, I go into a deep meditative state,” Jain says. “Being underwater is so freeing, I thought through diving I could make people better understand the effect of disabilities.”
“Immersive Terrestrial SCUBA Diving Using Virtual Reality,” Jain’s paper which explained the technology behind Amphibian, was accepted to the “ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI),” which takes place May 7-12, in San Jose, California. Jain has received grant funding from the MIT Council for the Arts for the project, which will be exhibited in the MIT Museum Studio Compton Gallery.