Nov 20, 2017 | By Tess

A Netherlands-based startup has made it possible to swim with the dolphins in VR. The non-profit, called The Dolphin Swim Club, is aiming to offer the same benefits as dolphin-assisted therapies—which are often used for people with disabilities—but without having to use real, captive dolphins.

The Dolphin Swim Club was founded by Dutch artist Marijke Sjollema who was inspired to start the initiative after an encounter with a dolphin in 1993 while swimming off the coast in Mexico. According to Sjollema, she initially thought the shadow approaching her in the water was the of a shark, and was relieved and happy to learn it was actually a dolphin.

"We know that there is something magical about dolphins,” she explained to AFP. “We think of joy, and playfulness and happiness and innocence when we meet dolphins. And this is even a healing quality.”

Since that fateful day in 1993, Sjollema has come far with her virtual reality endeavour. In 2015, the non-profit unveiled its first dolphin VR video using standard VR headsets. Now, in what is thought to be a world first, The Dolphin Swim Club has introduced waterproof VR glasses which allow people to actually be in water while immersing themselves in the VR world of the dolphins.

Currently, the in-water VR dolphin therapy process is being tested at a residential community for disabled people run by the Heeren Loo organization. The same center’s residents have been using the non-waterproof VR headsets for at least a year and have reported positive results.

“Some 82 percent of our clients feel actually relaxed by seeing the films,” said Johan Elbers, a policy advisor for Heeren Loo. “It takes them away from the world they are in, they enter a new world in another mindset, think differently, feel differently, see differently, and relax completely.”

Now, with the waterproof VR headsets, The Dolphin Swim Club believes it can take virtual dolphin-assisted therapies to the next level and could be used to help people destress and relax by virtually entering into the underwater world of cetaceans.

The waterproof goggles itself consists of a specialized headset rig which is 3D printed from recycled plastics sourced from the ocean, and a waterproof Samsung smartphone which is encased in an additional waterproof backing and mounted on the 3D printed headset. The development of the waterproof VR headset was enabled through a 50,000 euro grant from the Dutch government.

The VR content of the dolphins, which, judging by a preview put out by the non-profit, is beautiful, was captured during a 10-day long expedition in the Red Sea. The shoot was orchestrated by Viemr, a firm specializing in AR/VR films, and required a team of free divers who could hold their breath for up to five minutes at a time.

Importantly, the virtual dolphin footage captured in the wild can bring the aquatic animals to people without having to rely on using dolphins that are held in captivity, which is not only controversial, but also seen as cruel by many. This has been one of the main reasons behind Sjollema’s project.

Additionally, because the VR experience does not rely on real animals, the VR dolphin therapy is also much more accessible. Currently, over 150 universities, hospitals, and community centers from around the globe are using The Dolphin Swim Club’s non-waterproof VR videos.

While the waterproof VR goggles are still being trialled, Sjollema and her husband Benno Brada—the company’s business consultant—believe that they will offer a unique and more immersive therapy to those in need. They are currently seeking a business partner to launch the commercial production of their pool-friendly VR headsets.

 

 

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