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Virtual Reality Sharks Nab Professor $240,000 Grant

It was in the pool during physical rehabilitation for his Multiple Sclerosis when computer scientist and game designer John Quarles thought to himself, 'there has to be a way to make this more engaging.'

"I wouldn't say it was boring, exactly, because there is a motivation to get better, but I was thinking, 'Could I make this more effective?'" says Quarles.

His MS impacts his balance and mobility, which keeps him off of the bike and treadmill and can affect his body's ability to regulate temperature. So, the pool is the best place for him to stay fit, which in turn helps temper the MS, but the pool can be monotonous.

So, the UTSA professor thought, why can't we have virtual reality games for underwater?

The game Shark Punch is the result. By using a slightly modified divers mask and a waterproof phone he is able to create a game where the player is being circled by a shark and then it bites.

"I know the shark is biting me because there is this sound effect," he says.

Quarles says you could wear underwater headphones, but he just turns the phone up and that is more than enough.

  Quarles puts on the diving mask. 

"Let's go punch some sharks," he says.

He submerges in the pool and begins looking around. He swings his fist at the virtual predator.

The game uses the phone's internal motion sensors to register when you punch. The same thing a pedometer app would use. 

"I tend to lose track of time with this on," he says after emerging a few minutes later.

Quarles says the sensory information given by being in the pool fills in so much of the holes in the rudimentary game. 

"If you play this out off the water, versus playing it in the water, it's a very different experience. You hear the shark go past you. It almost feels like -- he's not-- but it feels like he's going past you."

"I can count the number of people that have tried this on one hand. We are kind of getting into undiscovered country."

But the water also limits what is possible. You can turn your head and the device registers it but you can't move forward and backward in the game. Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi and other traditional location technology aren't great in water --the radio waves are affected--and real-time tracking is imprecise.

And there isn't a lot of research out there on much of this area.

"I can count the number of people that have tried this on one hand. We are kind of getting into undiscovered country," says Quarles.

Shark punch proves the concept that underwater virtual reality is a thing and so the National Science Foundation gave Quarles $240,000 to continue the research, to try and solve the problem of real-time location data underwater, to continue finding ways, to improve the experience and rehabilitation options. But that isn't the only goal for Quarles.
"We don't really understand how people without disabilities would interact in a virtual environment underwater, and honestly you can learn a lot about both ends of it, both people with disabilities and people without disabilities," he says.

Training divers in a controlled environment could be a future iteration of this technology. Right now, he is pretty happy to just have a change to his workout routine. 

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org