Virtual Reality Design: An Example in Oceanography

In the past couple of articles, I’ve used the example of teaching the I2C communication protocol to college students using virtual reality (VR). We’ve analyzed what specification requirements the experience might require and how it might benefit from future technologies. To take a more realistic approach, I’ll use the same process for an example application in the marine industry. VR can be used in more than just teaching, and we should employ the technology to its fullest.

Target Audience

Because the marine industry is pretty huge, let’s narrow the audience to marine researchers. This becomes much easier to create our persona!

App Description

After identifying our target audience, let’s start defining some basic features that they might find useful. We’ll call the app Ocean-O-View, or OOV, and it would be a VR application specifically tailored to oceanographers. Users would be able to do the following:

  • View 3D visualizations of oceanographic data, such as hydrothermal vents and ocean circulation.
  • Create immersive simulations of marine phenomenon, such as undersea waterfalls and whirlpools.
  • View realtime 360 video streams and marine sensor data from other marine laboratories.

Awesome. Let’s go through our design questions to figure out the technical specifications of our app.

Platform Accessibility by Cost

How accessible by cost is the platform for our target user Chris to use the app?

Chris lives near the ocean, and given his seasoned experience in oceanography, he probably has a comfortable level of purchasing power. Although there is additional cost in hardware due to the additional graphical requirements, prices for high immersion equipment are slowly decreasing. Chris would be able to access easily both platforms given available alternatives and gradually decreasing costs.

High End Mobile VR: Easily accessible, however may not meet hardware requirements of the app.

High Immersion VR: Less accessible with respect to high end mobile VR, but meets (and exceeds) the app’s hardware requirements.

Platform Interactivity

How interactive does this app need to be?

Oceanographic datasets are huge, and researchers will probably need to manipulate them to some degree for simulations or statistics. However, it’s important to be careful when adding features without consulting the target audience.

Beware the unknown unknowns.

Coordinating with oceanographers during the development process is crucial due to their feedback for future features and improvements.

Chris might be fine doing some initial setup for 3D visualizations, but in the future he’ll probably need additional controls and features. This means that the platform needs to have the flexibility for supporting a wide range of features, ideally without complex, expensive hardware upgrades.

High End Mobile VR: Limited interactivity due to limited number of controls and expandability.

High Immersion VR: Wide range of interactivity and high degree of sensor tracking (6-DOF).

Platform Visuals

How realistic does the app need to look? Can 2D images and videos be used instead of high poly 3D models?

Chris will probably use the app for academia, so realism isn’t critical. However, he would definitely take advantage of the 3D data visualization and simulation tools. These renderings will most likely be dynamic and rely on a preprocessing stage to generate these visualizations. Although 2D images and videos could be used, Chris is more likely to take photos and record videos inside the app than simply add them in it. High poly 3D models could be utilized inside the app, but this is unknown because we’re not sure if they are really needed in Chris’s application.

High End Mobile VR: Limited hardware resources make this platform less than ideal.

High Immersion VR: Practically unlimited hardware resources for all levels of realism and rendering dynamic data visualizations.

Degree of Interaction

Should the the user be more of a participant or a passive viewer within the app? Does the app involve a lot of physical mobility?

Within the app, Chris would largely adapt the role of a passive viewer with certain degrees of participation. In a simple use case of viewing large datasets, a zoom feature could be useful in observing small or large trends. In a more realistic yet complex use case of viewing simulations of marine phenomenon, he may interact with different simulator parameters in realtime to view what kind of environmental reactions result. Overall, there is not a lot of physical mobility as all these interactions can be done while sitting.


The application would initially be very simple and robust in displaying 3D visualizations of immense datasets. However, because of the unknown unknowns concerning what features oceanographers find useful, the app would launch with limited features but would evolve based on feedback.The clear choice is High Immersion VR, like the HTC’s Vive. Despite the cost barrier, it presents a versatile, capable platform for immersive simulations and interactions of marine phenomenon and data visualizations.