As an avid traveler and adventure photographer, I forget that I have the privilege of being able to see and capture some of the Earth’s most beautiful phenomena in person and through my lens. I forget that we live in an era where we have the ability to travel more than all of the humans who ever lived before us combined. And even with travel becoming cheaper and more accessible to the masses, there are still some places and some adventures that even the most daring explorers rarely get to experience. In our modern digital world, virtual reality and augmented reality are becoming so commonplace and embedded into our culture that we will soon as humans not be able to differentiate our “real” memories from our virtual ones. To some explorers like myself this idea can be frightening, because we don’t want our future explorers to be hooked up to a headset to see Machu Picchu, but on the flipside how amazing is it that anyone, no matter how young, old, or physically challenged, can travel to the most obscure and sometimes dangerous places on the planet from the safety of their own homes?
Amusement parks like Universal Studios and Disney have been playing on our 4-D senses for years, where you can jump on a flying broomstick with Harry Potter and fly through a fantasy world with the wind blowing through your hair and never actually leave the safety of your seat. So it was only a matter of time before National Geographic decided to take that technology and their craft for creating beautiful imagery of nature in the most remote corners of the globe and turn it into a fully interactive virtual reality experience. They of course decided to “go large” and create an immersive experience in the heart of the concrete, neon jungle of Times Square where visitors are transported to the depths of the ocean and are face to face with Great Whites, Giant Squids, and animals you have never dreamed of. Taking over the old buildings of the NY Times Printing Presses, National Geographic transformed this iconic space into the wave of the future…literally. This virtual exhibition, called Ocean Odyssey, plunges visitors into the depths of the Pacific Ocean without getting wet or leaving the city.
I got a first-hand sampling of this technology this past summer while I was visiting the National Geographic head quarters in Washington DC. They were hosting an explorer’s cocktail hour with food from around the world and amazing cultural dance performances and off to the side I noticed a small table with people sitting around it with virtual reality goggles on. At first it was funny to watch these people as a voyeur from the outside at they grasp for things that weren’t there and practically knocking over their champagne glasses, but then my curiosity kicked in and I had to SEE what they were seeing. Once it was my turn to sit down, I slipped on the headset and I was transported to a number of National Geographic expeditions. One was on an icebreaker to Antarctica where giant penguins were swarming all around me, or I was swimming under the sea with sea lions, or on safari in the Serengeti. I completely was entranced and forgot how crazy I must have looked to other cocktail-goers watching me as I blindly grasped for the penguins that only I could see. It was amazing that I could be transported anywhere in the world while holding my glass of champagne, but National Geographic wanted to make this a fully immersive group experience and not just an isolated one.
When they built the Encounter: Ocean Odyssey exhibit, they wanted visitors to experience walking through a space with a group of people and feel like you are under the sea, without needing a headset and by using the latest motion detected, 3-D projection technology.
The underwater Ocean Odyssey exploration begins by descending the escalator through blue mist into the basement where a virtual ocean awaits. The walking exhibit will take you through a series of rooms, each providing a unique under-the-sea experience. Instead of just watching projections of sea creatures swim around you, the projections actually “react” to your movements and dodge where you are stepping or in some cases play with you.
Then, you start diving deeper into the eerier more unknown regions of the ocean. Visitors explore the bioluminescent depths where all types of glowing coral and fish reside. This room is followed by a pitch black “sound bath” where the audience may sit and enjoy the echoes and calls of various deep-sea creatures.
Without giving away the climax of the exhibit, just know that you will experience deep underwater battles, a 3-D show, plenty of photo ops, and of course in true National Geographic-style ending with educational videos, exhibits, and art pieces regarding ocean life and conversation.
What makes this exhibit so powerful and cutting edge is that it’s creating yet another dimension and medium for National Geographic to share their beautiful footage from their explorations and allow viewers to not just be voyeurs, but to become explorers themselves. The entire reason I became a photographer was because I was obsessed with Jacques Cousteau and his underwater adventures as a marine biologist. Through photography, I was able to become the explorer I always wanted to be. And now through virtual reality, I can be diving deep with Jacques Cousteau, or exploring the jungles like Indiana Jones. I can be James Bond. I can do anything! And virtual reality will only take us to even more extraordinary places, allow us to see, do, and be things we’d never imagined possible.
To learn more about this exhibit or how you can climb into a basement in Times Square and be transported into the deep oceans of our Earth, just click on this link. The underworld of Manhattan will never be the same again!
To join Laura Grier on her Travel adventures, follow her on Instagram @LauraGrierTravel