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Under the sea in Dover

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By Cameron Small
Hometown Weekly Intern

“Darlin’ it’s better, down where it’s wetter, take it from me.”

While it is true that a crab sang these words in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” patrons of the Dover Town Library get the chance to find out how accurate the statement is courtesy of virtual reality technology. On Wednesday and Friday afternoons from 2 p.m. until 3:30 p.m., and on Monday and Tuesday mornings from 11 a.m. until noon, library attendees can explore the world of virtual reality.

The Dover Town Library uses a program called Vive to simulate an underwater experience. Users are submerged approximately six hundred and fifty feet, as judged by the light penetration of the sun, onto the deck of a sunken ship. They then have about a two-foot by two-foot square of space to walk around and take in the subterranean world. To protect patrons from walking into walls or various other obstacles in the real world, red grid lines appear in the virtual reality headset. Vive has different simulations, and the Dover Town Library currently has “theBlu”—three underwater simulations centered around the sunken ship that library patrons can try. These simulations are “Whale Encounter,” “Reef Migration,” and “Luminous Abyss.”

Vive is one of many different sorts of virtual reality softwares out there. Jim Westen, the Head of Adult Services at the Dover Town Library, mentions Oculus in addition to Vive. Westen also mentions Google Tilt Brush, which would allow users to paint and create art in a three-dimensional space using virtual reality.

Westen explains there are two types of virtual reality: experience and video. Video is what it sounds like: the viewer gets dropped in the middle of a scene with no ability to interact with what the scene is. Experience, like “theBlu,” allows users to interact with the scene using specific virtual controllers. There are also games like shooters or archery that use the controllers that Westen hopes to get for the Dover Town Library in the future. Currently, the demonstrations of “theBlu” are free for patrons to drop by any time while they’re offered; if the library acquires the games, Westen wants to do a “sign up in advance” program. With the drop-by set up now, the demonstrations usually draw between ten and fifteen people. Although the library only has one headset and one set of earphones for the user to wear, a computer screen nearby allows other patrons to see the underwater world too.

Trying the headset is an experience not easily replicated. Westen has you face a certain direction to start the simulation. Unlike scuba diving, there is no plunge and rush of air bubbles as you descend beneath the surface. Instead, the world fades to black around you, and you re-emerge on the deck of a sunken ship. Your head turns in rapidly in different directions as you try to drink in the underwater world. Without the usual sounds of a busy, human dominated world, a certain tranquility comes over you. Occasionally, you are surprised not to see air bubbles.

Looking up, you can see the sun’s light shimmering on the surface several hundred feet above you. Circling you is marine life. Schools of fish dart around. Rays swim in a V-formation, reminding you of geese in the air. Looking down, it seems the ship is perched on a ledge, with a canyon tumbling away. The ship itself has handrails circling the gunwale. Every so often, the ship shifts with the current, and you can hear it creaking and shifting underneath you. A sea turtle swims by. You turn to look at some particular sea plant growing off the side of the ship.

You don’t know how long you’re looking at it, but when you turn around, there’s a humpback whale staring at you; and though you know the simulation you entered was called “Whale Encounter,” you cannot help but be a little perturbed by the closeness of it. Eventually, the whale decides you aren’t a threat and swims away to go back to doing its whale thing—maybe it needs to go breathe. And so the simulation ends, with the giant mammal gracefully swimming away.

Taking the headset and earphones off is disorienting. Under the water, your eyes adjusted to the low light. The fluorescent lights of the library are a stark contrast to say the least. With the headphones on, the sounds of the real world faded away—but take them off and people chattering or a cellphone ringing seem deafening compared to the watery silence.

After finishing the whale encounter simulation and leaving the library, there was most definitely a yearning for where it was better, and wetter, under the sea.

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