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By  Madeleine Clarke 13 January 2023 4 min read

Key points

  • It's difficult and time consuming to study our multidimensional oceans using traditional 2D data representations like graphs.
  • Our researchers are developing Ocean Explorer, a tool which allows you to dive into oceanographic data in virtual or augmented reality.
  • Ocean Explorer could also help decision makers understand and respond to unprecedented change in our oceans due to climate change and increasing human use.

Our world’s oceans are teeming with life and information. It's easy for scientists who study the ocean to become lost in a sea of endless numbers and graphs. It's harder to find meaningful connections and patterns while drowning in data.

This is because the ocean is an infinitely complex, gigantic and multidimensional volume with length, width, and depth. What's more, it's changing by the second. 

Currently, properties of these four dimensions like temperature, salinity, velocity and sea level are largely mapped on flat two dimensional (2D) plots. To study them, our scientists do a lot of mental gymnastics, translating pages upon pages of graphs into multidimensional meanings in their heads.

We think there's a better way.

[Music plays and a split circle appears and images flash through of different CSIRO activities in either side of the circle and then the circle morphs into the CSIRO logo]

[Image changes to show a harbour, and then the image changes to show the Investigator ship docked]

[Images move through to show a close view of Beth wearing a VR headset, scientists looking down at a computer, and a close view of the scientists looking down]

Matthew Grace: The concept for Ocean Explorer was originally dreamt up by our own ocean scientists at CSIRO.

[Image changes to show Matthew Grace talking to the camera, and then images move through of scientists in collaboration, and text appears: Matthew Grace, CSIRO Senior Product Manager]

They had a vision of the future, and the problems we were going to be facing, and we also had very much problems of the day.

[Images move through to show a male picking up two different VR headsets, Jas placing on an FPV, and a facing view of Jas wearing the headset]

Ocean Explorer allows you to dive in complex data to do with the ocean.

[Images move through to show Jas pointing towards the screen display she can see through the VR headset, a side view and then a rear view of Jas using the headset]

It really allows you to immerse yourself, to understand better that complexity, and you can do it via a web platform or a web browser.

[Images move through to show Jas using the VR headset while Matthew watches, and then the image changes to show Matthew talking to the camera]

You can also do it via mixed reality being virtual reality or augmented reality, which gives you another layer of insight and intuition.

[Images move through to show various underwater maps, Jas Chambers talking to the camera, and Jas using the VR headset, and text appears: Jas Chambers, Chair and Co-founder, Ocean Decade Australia]

Jas Chambers: Ocean Explorer is an incredible tool. Actually being able to get inside the ocean and see it, that’s a real privilege.

[Image changes to show a side view of Jas using the VR headset, and then the image changes to show Dr Beth Fulton talking to the camera in front of the Investigator, and text appears: Dr Beth Fulton, CSIRO Ocean Systems Scientist]

Dr Beth Fulton: If we’re going to avoid making the mistakes in the ocean that we made on land then we need to get ahead of things.

[Image changes to show a side view of Beth talking to a colleague, and then the image changes to show a close view of a computer screen Beth is pointing to]

And a tool like this can help us be faster by understanding the connections and the data as it comes in.

[Image changes to show Jas talking to the camera, and then the image changes to show a rear view of Jas walking along a path near the harbour]

Jas Chambers: Being able to have decision makers understand the ocean environment is imperative.

[Images move through to show a facing and then close rear view of Jas walking along next to the harbour, and then views of Jas looking out over the ocean]

You don’t get to work on climate change without thinking about the ocean, but almost everyone does and they’re ignoring the very system that regulates it.

[Image changes to show Jas talking to the camera, and then the camera zooms in on Jas talking, and then the image changes to show Jas using the VR headset]

People don’t know about the ocean-climate nexus and that’s our great opportunity.

[Images move through to show the view Beth can see through the VR headset, a side view of Beth wearing the headset, and then Beth talking to the camera]

Dr Beth Fulton: This kind of visualisation tool opens the door to understanding new connections that we never realised were there before.

[Images move through to show fish swimming over a coral reef, an aerial view looking down on a coral reef in the ocean, fish swimming over the coral reef again, and Beth talking to the camera]

We look at the fish, the currents, we look at the whales, sharks all those different things that live in the ocean, to look at how they’ll run forward under climate change and things like fisheries management so you can get a better idea of what that future will look like.

[Images move through to show a side and then close side view of Jas using the VR headset]

Humans are a species that learns by doing.

[Image changes to show a close view of Beth talking to the camera, and the Investigator can be seen in the background]

We don’t learn by seeing a blanket set of statistics.

[Images move through of different views of Jas using the VR headset, and then data that she can see through the headset]

So, by using something like the Ocean Explorer, you can really explore the ocean regardless of who you are.

[Images move between views of Matthew watching Jas use the VR headset, Matthew talking to the camera, Jas using the headset, and the data Jas can see and manipulate through the headset]

Matthew Grace: The purpose of this tool is to not only assist our scientists, but also to effectively communicate the complexity of that science.

[Image changes to show Jas taking the headset off and smiling]

It’s only when that happens in the consciousness of our stakeholders that we can really elevate what’s going on in our oceans.

[Image changes to show Matthew talking to the camera]

And so that’s our goal.

[Image changes to show the CSIRO logo and text: CSIRO, Australia’s National Science Agency]

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Meet Ocean Explorer

We’re prototyping tools to allow our scientists to dive with ease into multidimensional data.

Our Senior Software Engineer Emma Krantz and her colleagues are working on two versions of a tool called Ocean Explorer.

This tool aims to bring a greater resolution to the study of dynamic ocean variables, which will help to reduce the barriers between scientists and their data.

“What we’re trying to do is move from data visualisations, which are the equivalent of 2D CT scans, to something like an MRI of the ocean," Emma said.

Ocean Explorer will work across two main versions. First, an immersive experience in augmented or virtual reality. Wearing a headset, users can dive beneath the ocean surface, exploring currents and how ocean variables change over time and interact. Second, a web-based Ocean Explorer. This version allows researchers to manipulate high-quality data visualisations from a desktop computer.

UX/UI Designer Philip Grimmett interacts with Ocean Explorer in virtual reality.

Seas of change 

We are living in a period of rapid and unprecedented change in our oceans.

Ocean systems scientist Beth Fulton said, in addition to the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems, human use of our oceans has increased exponentially.

"Think of the invention of on-land agriculture, the industrial revolution, and then the huge explosion of technology and development that happened on land after World War Two… Now, imagine all of that happening at the same time. That's what's happening in the oceans right now," Beth said.

"It’s really important that we don’t mess the oceans up because this is an ocean planet. If we're going to avoid making the mistakes in the ocean that we made on land, then we need to get ahead of things."

Beth and her colleague Peter Dobrohotoff created the vision for Ocean Explorer. They imagined a tool allowing them to study the impact of this change on our oceans faster, using more of their primary senses.

The current version of the tool is designed to visualise the BRAN2020 dataset, which provides realistic estimates of whole ocean attributes, based on a scientific model. BRAN2020 is a key output of the Bluelink partnership between the Australian Department of DefenceBureau of Meteorology and us.

In Ocean Explorer, users can slice, dice, zoom and rotate oceanographic data using touch to explore the volume in augmented reality.

The flow of science into decision making 

In addition to helping our ocean scientists build this understanding, Ocean Explorer is a powerful tool for communicating ocean science to decision makers.

Jas Chambers is the Chair and Co-Founder of Ocean Decade Australia, a not-for-profit focused on connecting the many industries and Australians that use the ocean to promote sustainable use.

“Being able to have decision makers understand the ocean environment, how it is impacted by the rapid changes that climate change has brought about, but also the increased use of ocean resources, is imperative,” Jas said.

“We have energy systems in the ocean. We want to eat from the ocean. We want to use the ocean from a recreation perspective. It's also a transport highway, so decision makers really need to understand what all of those impacts look like in the ocean system.

“Modeling that is important, and Ocean Explorer is one of these incredibly important tools that will enable them to make better decisions.”

From science fiction to science reality 

Senior Engineer Emma Krantz and Design Thinking expert Viveka Weiley workshop an early version of the Ocean Explorer prototype.

Our software engineers, designers, scientific computing experts, and product managers are working to leverage cutting-edge technologies to transform the way science is done. The aim: To get future technologies into the hands of our scientists today.

Design Thinking Expert Viveka Weiley said the team is also exploring how Ocean Explorer could benefit other scientific domains.

"We’re beginning to see a path to solutions that can open up scientific fields to more people and create more opportunities to cross disciplinary boundaries," Viveka said.

"And as we look into scaling Ocean Explorer beyond the current prototype, there’s potential for applications in other fields like atmospheric physics, geological exploration and astrophysics."

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