SenseSeat is an egg-shaped chair that isolates you from your surroundings in an immersive experience. It can lean back, change colours, play stereo music or even alter the temperature around you. Developed at M-ITI the currently operational chair sits at the Cristiano Ronaldo hotel in Madeira.

From the experience of developing SenseSeat and the potential of using this immersive platform came an idea to expand the possibilities of the chair and use it to provide a more complex experience.“People who have tried scuba diving are usually very enthusiastic and passionate about it. With this technology, we aim that someone who is forbidden, for some reason, from diving or can’t have access to the Ocean to be allowed to see and experience the underwater world. In this way, people who use this system might have this very specific and unique kind of experience even if they have an impairment that keeps them from going inside the water.” Rute Luz, who is working on this partnership between M-ITI and ISR-Lisboa with supervisors José Luís Silva and Rodrigo Ventura, explained how from this operation an opportunity came up to participate in a competition promoted by National Geographic.

“We created an Open Explorer mission, as a part of a National Geographic Society initiative, explaining what we wanted to do, information about our research and what we’re willing to accomplish with this work.” Open Explorer is a community-powered digital field journal platform, open to anyone who has a story to tell or a place to explore, no matter where they are. For about 5 months the team posted about their developments in this platform while studying the human component of the scuba diving experience. This paid off by April 2019, when a Trident robot from OpenRov arrived at ISR, ready to be set up and used in the water. By showcasing their mission in this platform the team increased public exposure, which led to some attention in the Open Explorer platform and support from OPENROV.

“With this sponsorship, we are now better able to reach the Ocean. The robot will be used as a platform and it’s ready to dive, so we don’t have to be concerned with basic functionalities but only with adapting the experience. We will work towards installing new sensors on board the ROV to improve the teleoperation of Trident. By building on top of functionalities in this way and using our experience with search and rescue robots – although in a completely different type of remote environment – we believe we’ll be able to reach a higher level experience.”

Current challenges include making Trident more adapted to becoming a vehicle for the user’s exploration. One of the goals includes installing a 360º camera on the robot for users to ‘look around’ when wearing a VR headset.“We are trying to make the robot almost invisible to give this authentic experience of being in the water. At this point we are optimizing data intake from the robot, figuring out how to install specific cameras and integrate all the different sensors. From that, and by increasingly adding more, the goal is to develop on computer vision and bias in the camera to be able to fully integrate reactions in real time.

Trying to integrate the robot’s environment with the simulation of the controller involves several factors and many details need to be taken into account. Things like changes in temperature or currents, or even the sound of the bubbles leaving the respirator at the same time as the users’ exhales. “We want to improve the performance of the person that is controlling the robot. In order to do that we need to provide better situational awareness so that the person is able to fully understand what is happening in real time.”

Ideally, they want the user to even forget that they are using a robot. “Ultimately we believe that if people can have a truly immersive experience they’ll be able to become more fascinated about the underwater environment. By understanding the sea in this close way and becoming fully aware of how wonderful it is, users can realize how important it is to care about and preserve our Ocean.”

Follow the mission to learn more about its several components and keep up with all the teams’ developments, here.