UH Hilo, UH Mānoa team wins national award for Hawaiian coral reef virtual reality app

Winning the Best Visualization Showcase Award at an upcoming research conference, the app is made from thousands of images of coral reef habitats collected by marine scientist John Burns and his research team during ship-based research expeditions led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

By Susan Enright

Screen shot of 3D reef.
Screen shot of 3D reef sequence for the award-winning app. Photo courtesy Francis Cristobal. Click to enlarge.

A team of undergraduate students from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Department of Computer Science and UH Mānoa College of Engineering was awarded Best Visualization Showcase Award for the upcoming Practice and Experience in Advanced Research Computing 2020 Conference (PEARC20). The team’s project integrated three-dimensional models of Hawaiian coral reefs into an immersive virtual reality platform.

Originally scheduled in Portland, OR, but now switched to an online format due to the coronavirus, the PEARC20 takes place July 26 – 30, 2020, and will explore the current concepts of advanced research computing including modeling, simulation, and data-intensive computing.

John Burns
John Burns

The UH project, titled, “Exploration of Coral Reefs in Hawaiʻi through Virtual Reality: Hawaiian Coral Reef Museum VR,” showcases models that were generated from high-resolution surveys at long-term monitoring sites throughout the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Thousands of images of coral reef habitats were collected by John Burns, a UH Hilo assistant professor of marine science, and his research team during ship-based research expeditions led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

The images were then processed by the UH Hilo Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) Lab—a lab developed by Burns—using structure-from-motion photogrammetry technology to create high-resolution 3D reconstructions of each coral reef study plot. These models form the foundation of the immersive virtual reality experience.

“The VR application is an incredible way to engage broad audiences and provide them with a unique immersive experience to see coral reefs first hand and witness changes occurring in these valuable ecosystems,” says Burns.

Francis Cristobal, a faculty specialist in the UH Hilo computer science department, spearheaded the two-year project.

Francis Cristobal
Francis Cristobal

“One of the primary objectives was to create virtual outreach products to showcase these incredible and unique products to public audiences around the globe,” says Cristobal.

“When the application starts, the user is brought into a Coral Reef Museum filled with a curated selection of coral reefs,” Cristobal explains. “The user then picks a reef to explore and is transported to a life-sized 3D model of it. From there, the user can resize, reposition or fly through a 3D model, offering a wide range of interactivity. This human-centered design is particularly an effective platform for researchers, instructors, and the general public.”

These reconstructions also allow researchers to examine how the coral reefs change over time and respond to stressors associated with climate change.

“The models provide an excellent public outreach tool as audiences can get a first-hand realistic view of what these isolated and protected coral reefs look like,” Cristobal says.

Team members:

  • John Burns, UH Hilo Marine Science and MEGA
  • Francis Cristobal, UH Hilo Computer Science
  • Michael Dodge II, UH Mānoa, Pre-Electrical Engineering
  • Alec Goodson, UH Hilo Computer Science (graduated Spring 2020)
  • Drew Gotshalk, UH Hilo Computer Science (graduated Spring 2020)
  • Jared McLean, UH CyberInfrastructure
  • Briana Noll, UH Hilo Computer Science (graduated Spring 2020)
  • Kailey Pascoe, UH Hilo MEGA lab
  • Nickolas Rosenberg, UH Hilo Computer Science (graduated Spring 2020)
  • Alexandra Runyan, UH Hilo Marine Science
  • Joseph Sanchez, UH Hilo Edwin Mookini Library
  • Ryan Theriot, UH Mānoa LAVA

“This was an exciting project to work on,” says Michael Dodge, a UH Hilo alumnus and now a pre-engineering student at UH Mānoa. “I learned a lot about what goes into VR application development, and doing this as a real-world program for the public made it every bit more interesting. Developing across multiple campuses allowed us to use the best tech available in UH Hilo’s MEGA Lab, UH Hilo [computer science] labs, and UH Mānoa’s LAVA.”

The project is a collaboration of UH Hilo Department of Computer Science, the UH Hilo Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) Lab, UH Mānoa Laboratory of Advanced Visualization and Applications (LAVA), ʻIke Wai Data Science initiative, and the UH Hilo Edwin Mookini Library. The project was funded by UH System Academy of Creative Media.

The virtual museum will be showcased at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center in Hilo, Hawaiʻi, and will be a travelling exhibit. It will also be presented at the Hawaiʻi State Legislature.

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Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo. See also UH Hilo media release.

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