Bringing the Hauraki Gulf to life with virtual reality experience

Growing up, James Frankham, publisher of New Zealand Geographic, spent summers with his family at the bottom end of Waiheke Island. Now spending time on the Hauraki Gulf with his own young family, he’s got to know the area even more intimately, during production of the NZ-VR project – a virtual-reality experience that showcases the wonders, and worries, of the region’s underwater realm.

This story initially appeared on OurAuckland and is shared with permission.

Explore the NZ-VR Project

The project began 18 months ago, after New Zealand Geographic sat down with the Sir Peter Blake Trust and the Pew Charitable Trusts – a global NGO working to protect the environment and support scientific research – to figure out the best way to get attention for their conservation messages.

Conservation's image problem

“Ocean conservation suffers from a massive image problem, because no one can see or easily experience something that’s covered up by 30 metres of salt water,” says Frankham.

“Unless you experience something, how can you really care for it, when you don’t have the tools for empathy?”

Until now, he says, the best way to do that has been taking classes of kids to snorkel through marine reserves, like Goat Island near Leigh, or to get photos and stories published in the media. Nothing will ever replace a real-life experience, he says, but “virtual reality is now the best tool to recreate that experience”.

VR photo
 

The Hauraki Gulf and its connecting waters were the focal point for the first phase of the NZ-VR project. Frankham directed the video production, working with producer Lucy van Oosterom, a marine biologist and Blake NIWA Ambassador in 2013, and award-winning photographer Richard Robinson. The project was funded by a grant from Foundation North.

Project captures the good and the bad

The crew travelled north to the Three Kings Islands and Parengarenga Harbour, down to the Poor Knights and Goat Island, out to the edge of the continental shelf, and inside the gulf itself. They were determined to capture the good and the bad within the gulf to create a realistic picture of its health.

“Some of the pristine environments we’ve filmed have been mindblowing,” says Frankham. “It’s amazing to think that more of the gulf could be like that if it was properly protected.”

One of the highlights was filming dolphins surfing on the bow of the boat: “When you put the VR headset on … you actually feel like a dolphin.” But they also filmed sewage coming out of overflow points into the Waitematā Harbour and effluent in creeks that flow into the Waiheke Channel. Frankham was also alarmed by what he believes is a significant decrease in fish numbers.

Educating young people about the environment

The Sir Peter Blake Trust’s objective was to deliver an immersive experience to schools through the NZVR project, so students could see both the rich biodiversity below the surface and the damage that’s been done to the ecosystem. “This technology is an awesome way to reach a large number of young people in an impactful way with a message that educates and inspires them to care for the environment,” says the trust’s head of community engagement, Kelly Bleakley.

With content already trialled in a number of Auckland schools, Bleakley says students have been “blown away” by the footage and love the VR technology.

For schools in Northland and Auckland, a travelling educator will take classrooms through a one-hour roadshow session. And for schools around the country, the trust has teaching resources to accompany the video content, in both the science and social studies curriculum, especially in Years 9 and 10.

The trust’s long-term plan is to have the educator travel to schools throughout the country, and create virtual-reality footage of the marine environment in those areas. And New Zealand Geographic has a ‘wild dream’ to eventually create a virtual experience of every biome in New Zealand – from mountain peaks to deep seas.

This story was first published on Our Auckland.