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Citizen diplomat for the underwater world: Environmentalist and diver Laura James is helping train archeologists to examine sunken wrecks using VR

By Kristin Kloberdanz
June 8, 2020
A rare US Navy Douglas TBD-1 Devastator aircraft resting at the bottom of Jaluit Lagoon in the Republic of the Marshall Islands

When first-time diver and environmentalist Laura James explored a shipwreck park in 1990, it was like a fairy tale. After swimming through the murky waters of the Puget Sound, she found herself in what felt like a cathedral set in Alice’s Wonderland — a shimmery world of colorful fish, barnacles, and green kelp. “It was booming with life,” she says of the marine habitat that had taken hold of the sunken vessel. “It was so breathtaking, I realized in that moment that I had found my place on this planet.”

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What James didn’t know at the time, however, was that the beauty she was beholding was just the tip of the iceberg. Just like Alice going deeper into that rabbit hole, new details only revealed themselves to James after numerous dives. “I learned to see those details from diving over and over and over again,” the Seattle-based James says, explaining how a novice diver could swim right past the bell of a ship because it might be dilapidated or miss an important relic as it blends into a dark and hazy background. “You don’t see it at first because your eyes aren’t trained.”

A glimpse at the Maritime Archeology Simulator. The latest build adds fog, lights, particles, and sea creatures for a more accurate virtual diving experience

Thousands of dives and shipwreck explorations later, James is creating a virtual reality (VR) educational tool and game that will help amateur archeologists, history buffs, and landlocked adventure seekers better recognize important artifacts before they don heavy gear and sink beneath the surface. The Maritime Archaeology Simulator is a VR experience — and an official participant of the Oculus Start program — that uses high-quality photogrammetry (the use of photos to create realistic maps), LIDAR scans, and real-life videography of documented shipwrecks to allow users to dive through a submerged vessel and help them see beyond the swirls of fish and old planks. 

“This really is my little labor of love,” James says. “I have had this dream to make it for decades, but only now do I have the skills and partnerships to make it a (virtual) reality.”

The Maritime Archaeology Simulator can be used to help underwater archaeologists map out what they will see during an exploration. For example, wearing an Oculus headset, an archaeology student can point at objects to prompt information bubbles explaining which pieces of the ship they are. Similarly, voiceovers explain what types of marine life have made homes there now, and lights direct divers to important discoveries. Competitive participants can even gather gaming points every time they find a new piece of the puzzle or complete a fish count.

Filming Molokini Crater in Maui for a series of healthcare videos designed to support pain management and promote well-being.

Shipwrecks have long been a driving force in James’s life. She describes herself as “a crazy teenage shipwreck diver” off the coast of Washington, before she moved on to environmental causes and education, specifically as a filmmaker. Now “a citizen diplomat for the underwater world,” James has worked on many underwater video projects, including the Emmy-winning Solving the Mystery of Dying Starfish and Sea Otters v. Climate Change. James has spent the past few years using VR and 360 video to further educate people on the undersea world and its challenges. As she told us in an interview a year ago: “The underwater world and the threats it faces are the perfect subject matter for immersive video. 

One of the biggest challenges in ocean environmentalism efforts is the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ phenomenon. Beneath that thin barrier, there’s a whole world waiting to be investigated and explored. For many people, their world ends at the line between land and sea, so by utilizing immersive technology, it’s my hope that I can help transport viewers into a very special place that can’t be unseen.”

In February, she approached Oculus Start, a platform for VR developers to get support for their applications, with her Maritime Archaeology Simulator idea. “If developers require our help during the process,” says Oculus Start’s Rita Brennan Turkowski, “we are there to guide them to the developer support team or the right people on the Store Ops team so they may publish with minimal friction.”

James giving a talk on underwater filmmaking and immersive video at the VR Expo in South Korea.

James also partnered with Emmy-nominated videographer and diver Evan Kovacs at Marine Imaging Technologies, a company that does high-quality photogrammetry and LIDAR scans for organizations such as the National Park Service, National Geographic, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. James uses Marine Imaging Technologies’ numerous highly detailed scans of shipwrecks from around the world and combines them with 360 video taken from shipwrecks to create — or simulate — the experience of diving into a lost ship or boarding a sunken airplane. “I could not do this without the support of Marine Imaging Technologies,” she says. “Evan had a similar dream but did not have the skill set or time to make it happen, which is why it is such a beautiful partnership.”

Currently, James is working with scans from about a dozen of these wrecks as she builds her program. But she hopes that the Maritime Archaeology Simulator will eventually be an open source project. “I want to put all the shipwrecks in it that I can get scans for,” she says. “This really is something for the broader diving community of shipwreck enthusiasts and maritime archeologists to be involved in.”

James working on educational films to help citizens of Puget Sound understand the impact of wastewater on the Salish Sea.

While the simulator is an excellent educational tool for archeologists who want to be better prepared for their real dive, it’s also a wonderful opportunity for people who simply love diving or who have always wanted to dive but cannot experience the thrill of an exploratory underwater adventure. “You’ll be able to explore the space and get points for identifying stuff, or maybe you’ll approach the dive with a list or a certain number of fish to count,” she says.

The Maritime Project Simulator might very well transform how underwater archaeologists approach shipwreck exploration. And for James, it’s yet another method to further marine exploration and help generations of people “learn more about the history and future of the world beneath that thin blue molecular line.” 

First and foremost, as she said when she pitched this project to Oculus Start: “I want to help divers and nondivers alike fall in love with the magic and mystery of the undersea world, and encourage them to protect it.”

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