You can snorkel on Conasauga with new program at aquarium

Posted 7/6/15

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CHATTANOOGA — The Conasauga River, which flows along the Tennessee/Georgia border about 1.5 hours from downtown Chattanooga and even closer to Cleveland, is incredibly …

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You can snorkel on Conasauga with new program at aquarium

TENNESSEE TECH University’s iCube developer Stefanie Smithers, right, shows Sarah Hazzard, Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute GIS Analyst, how she rendered a Tangerine Darter for the Oculus project.
TENNESSEE TECH University’s iCube developer Stefanie Smithers, right, shows Sarah Hazzard, Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute GIS Analyst, how she rendered a Tangerine Darter for the Oculus project.
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Special to the Banner

CHATTANOOGA — The Conasauga River, which flows along the Tennessee/Georgia border about 1.5 hours from downtown Chattanooga and even closer to Cleveland, is incredibly alive.

Within its crystal clear waters lives 76 native fish species, more than the Colorado and Columbia Rivers combined. These fishes, and the dozens of other animals that make up the aquatic community, live within less than one percent of the area of the other two enormous watersheds.

“Whenever we take students snorkeling in the Conasauga, they are changed by the experience,” said Dr. Anna George, director of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute. “They see all of this life – right here in our backyards - and realize that we live in a special place worth protecting.”

Traveling with large groups to the river is impractical. But now there’s a way to bring the river to students at the Tennessee Aquarium, thanks to a new collaborative project with the BusinessMedia Center at Tennessee Tech University using Oculus Rift.

Oculus goggles allow users to become immersed in a 3D virtual reality world that offers high-definition visuals in a 360-degree field of view. Computer processing speeds have become powerful enough to allow Oculus users to look up, down, or behind themselves and the complex scenery seamlessly follows their motions.

The gaming industry has been rushing to develop content ever since Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg purchased Oculus VR for a cool $2 billion in cash and Facebook stock.

“The Rift is highly anticipated by the gaming community,” said Zuckerberg in a Facebook post announcing the acquisition. “But this is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences.”

While most developers are rushing to complete entertainment projects by the widespread release of the Oculus Rift system, which is forecast to be available by Christmas of this year, others like Tennessee Tech University have forged a different path focused on education.

“When we first started thinking about virtual reality projects, we thought about partnering with the Tennessee Aquarium,” said Kevin Liska, director of the BusinessMedia Center at TTU. “We felt there was a tremendous opportunity to develop the world’s first environmental education virtual reality game.”

The idea to create a snorkeling game came from Thaddeus Taylor, the Aquarium’s learning specialist. While on a snorkeling trip to the Conasauga River, Taylor wondered aloud, “How can we give all of our Aquarium student groups this unique experience without having them travel to this remote location?”

Six months ago Liska, and a project team of eight people from TTU, met with Aquarium educators and scientists from TNACI to brainstorm how to captivate students with a new virtual reality lesson plan. “It was an ambitious project but between our team and the Aquarium’s, we were drawing on 16 different academic backgrounds,” said Liska. “So the final product isn’t just a cool game idea, it’s a way to immerse students in an environmental lesson that’s rooted in science.”

When school groups book a field trip this fall, they will be able to add the “Stream Scene Extreme,” a classroom program based on the Oculus Rift project, to enhance what they experience in River Journey and Ocean Journey. “This is very much like snorkeling a thriving river,” said Taylor. “Virtual reality allows us to place them in a healthy ecosystem and then create different pollution events for the students to actually experience.”

As the water changes from clear to murky, species begin to disappear. It’s up to the students to surface and become environmental superheroes by identifying the source of the pollution. Then they must choose the right corrective action, or actions, to restore the watershed.

A group of Red Bank Middle students seemed engrossed in the game when they “test drove” the Oculus project in March. One student, who was reluctant to try the Oculus goggles, was very excited by what she saw. “It was super cool!”

Liska’s team is sharing this ground-breaking Oculus project with the world, hoping it becomes an environmental education game-changer. “In addition to reaching students at the Tennessee Aquarium, we will post this on the Oculus website for everyone,” said Liska. “Making this project publicly available for classrooms and homes across the nation is really exciting because it may help encourage waves of students to value and protect river systems.”

The Tennessee Aquarium inspires wonder, appreciation and protection of water and all life that it sustains.

The state's only public technological university, Tennessee Tech University offers more than 40 bachelor's and 20 graduate programs to more than 11,000 students on its 282-acre campus.

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