The Greek platform that “takes us” in the sea bottom of Santorini
A team of Greek researchers is developing VirtualDIVER, the first integrated interactive platform for undersea virtual experiences for tourists and cultural operators. Through VirtualDIVER, anyone using special glasses or other devices with Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality will have the opportunity to “travel”to Santorini’s terrestrial and underwater environment.
Its creators, a group consisting of the Department of Geology and Geoenvironment of the University of Athens, the NTUA (Remote Sensing Laboratory), TETRAGON (Thessaloniki), STEFICON (Athens) and up2metric (Athens), held in April 2019 international presentation of VirtualDIVER at the conference of the International Association of Geosciences (EGU) in Vienna.
Their objective is to develop an integrated interactive platform that allows the user to “navigate” in a natural environment (augmented reality techniques) and virtual (virtual reality techniques) in areas of tourist and environmental interest, such as points with unique geomorphological structures, shipwrecks, submerged ports and states, marine parks, NATURA regions, etc., with the aim of enriching travel experience and promoting specific forms of tourism.
The general idea behind the whole thing is that the user will put his special glasses or some other device with enhanced AR and virtual reality (VR), he will sit comfortably on his sofa or walk and will immediately begin to “travel” in the enchanting terrestrial and underwater environment of Santorini. Users will be able to “immerse” in real or fantastic environments with different media (such as tablets, virtual reality glasses, etc.), regardless of whether or not they are at the point of browsing.
Technology in the fields of virtual and augmented reality has experienced significant growth, providing technical solutions in environments that have so far been difficult and not operational to model them. On the other hand, the underwater environment of Greece, although of great scientific interest in all fields of marine research, has hardly been exploited at a cultural and tourist level.
The creators of the interactive platform estimate that today business and investment opportunities are being created, which they are trying to cover with this research proposal. They see a “market gap”, compared to the current competition in Greece and Europe, and try to cover it in time with VirtualDIVER.
They also “bet” on augmented and virtual reality technologies, which, as they are constantly improving, are now becoming the means to “travel” anyone from their home or office “immersing” to impressive experiences, exploring environments more than any other time detail and going to places you might never have been able to go, including the destinations of those who are outside the boundaries of tourists or who have been considered too dangerous for diving.
The project will be introduced in Santorini where “visitors” will have the opportunity to choose from a set of points of interest and to navigate virtually on them. The initial implementation of the platform will be for the submarine area of the Santorini caldera as well as neighboring Kolumbo, which is the most submarine volcano in the Mediterranean, allowing users to navigate virtually in environments accessible only by underwater vehicles and expensive, research and scientific missions. In the future, it may follow a wider use of the platform for other regions of Greece.
As Ms. Paraskevi Nomikou, Assistant Professor of the Department of Geology and Geoenvironment at the University of Athens, said in an interview, “The VirtualDIVER platform provides non-specialized people with both the design tools of the area and the points of interest contained therein, as well as the application that guides the visitor through modern interfaces such as glasses virtual reality, Google 3D Expeditions and Google Cardboard 3D views and technologies. The multimedia content, such as 360-degree 3D images, 360-degree images and videos, is based on scientific data, combined with narrative scenarios through the VirtualDIVER Platform, thus delivering interactive virtual reality experiences”.
The Greek researchers combine documented knowledge, information and scientific data that will guarantee the detailed mapping of the marine and terrestrial relief of Santorini in high resolution, which will be carried out with state-of-the-art technologies (multidisciplinary mapping systems, underwater vehicles, unmanned radio-controlled helicopters) , to create a single topographic relief and to analyze all the special geomorphological and ecological structures of the area, as well as the anthropogenic interventions.
Ms. Nomikou stressed that “Integrating research knowledge into interactive narrative systems will lead to the development of innovative tourism products to promote the underwater environment and attract tourists of general or special interest. Through VirtualDIVER, we strategically target Santorini as it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. The unique geomorphological relief of the inner slopes of the caldera, which continues on the bottom, the particular development of the settlements, as well as the geological history and the evolution of the volcano, will be the themes of the interactive narrative of the platform. The research results will be interpreted in a popular way through the platform, while the systematic collection of data and the virtual representation of the browser space will be applicable to any other coastal environment of tourist or cultural interest”.
The research project for the creation of VirtualDIVER is funded with € 730,000 from the Operational Program “Competitiveness, Entrepreneurship, Innovation” – EPANEK of the NSRF for the period 2014-2020 under the “Research – Create – Innovate” action. The development of the innovative platform began in October 2018 and will be completed in October 2021. The expected pilot operation of the platform (https://virtualdiver.gr/) will take place in October 2020.