Saving Turtles With VR

The Loggerhead Marinelife Center (LMC) in Juno Beach, Florida helps to conserve and protect sea turtles through pollution prevention initiatives and their on-site rehabilitation hospital. These efforts are supported by the LMC education programs, which teach students and visitors about ocean life conservation and sustainability through virtual reality tours of the center. When the LMC found out that Google was shutting down their VR software platform, they scrambled to find a new solution to maintain the educational VR tour initiative they had built over the course of two years. “We couldn’t afford to have a lapse in our educational experiences, since they are a large part of our programming and support for the Center,” explained LMC Director of Education, Hannah Campbell.

Cortina Productions was hired by the LMC to develop a new and improved VR system to replace the LMC’s Google application. Using Unity 3D, Cortina began replacing the features of the previous VR tour program to ensure a seamless transition. However, the LMC needed a more versatile platform to provide more content and information for visitors. As Bryan Heisey, Director of Software Development at Cortina Productions explains, “LMC has a wealth of information and media. It was critical that we developed a platform that incorporated video and accessibility features so our client could share this wealth with a wide audience.” For a second release coming this fall, we will implement an updated VR platform incorporating new and enhanced features to meet the LMC’s growing needs for building additional tours. This update will add a variety of content options including 360-degree video, animations, and a user-friendly content management and publishing system to ensure tour content stays fresh and relevant.

For the current version of the program, Cortina developed a custom application for both the educator tablet and the students’ VR headsets. While the students view the virtual tour through a VR headset, the educator controls a tablet screen and can see what the students are seeing in real time. The tour presents 360-degree exploration of the LMC with various scenes and clickable hotspots that educators can use to explain how the LMC is saving sea turtles. As students explore the areas of the center through a VR headset, the teacher guides them through each virtual 360-degree scene using and selecting hotspots to activate pop-ups with in-depth content. Scenes include a sea turtle hospital room to safely treat turtles, outdoor salt water rehabilitation pools, the sea turtle release beach, and an underwater environment where the turtles are reintroduced to the wild.

“The platform leverages the latest in mobile application technologies and cloud infrastructure that will allow us to scale the solution over time. While the VR tour is the first instructor-led module, we’ve built the platform to allow for additional modules in the future,” states Heisey. Small icons on the tablet allow the teacher to see where each student is looking in the virtual 3D space, which provides confirmation for the teacher and an opportunity to refocus the group if needed. Additionally, the software includes a white board feature where the instructor can circle and highlight elements within the VR scene, so students can get a better understanding of key points and image details as they are viewing the tour.

“The ocean is a vastly unexplored place, especially for those who have had little to no opportunity to explore it,” said Campbell. “The Cortina team brought our vision of giving every student a chance to digitally dive to reality. The final user experience exceeded our expectations and the process was seamless to help bring ocean education to next-generation students.”

Following this successful transition for the Loggerhead Marinelife Center, Cortina Productions intends to offer the VR tour platform to more institutions that want to provide visitors with similar immersive educational VR experiences.

In the VR tour platform, the educator controls a tablet screen with descriptions of a scene that includes a view into the Indoor Sea Turtle Hospital where turtles receive rehabilitation care and surgery if needed.

The Instructor tablet of the VR program has a whiteboard feature that allows teachers to illustrate on a scene to elaborate on key elements.

While the educator is controlling and explaining the scene, students are able to view the scene through VR headsets and ask questions about what they are seeing.