This Technology Lets You Become a Dolphin
Would you be more likely to save a dolphin if you could become one?
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the National Aquarium in Baltimore hope so. They’ve created a new online game, I Am Dolphin, that lets players get inside the mind of a dolphin and help it swim, leap, forage for prey, and fend off predators. Players using a smartphone or pad can direct cybernetic cetaceans through the sea and watch as the animals respond to commands issued with the flick of a finger.
“It’s very hard to describe in words; you really need to play the game for yourself,” said codeveloper Omar Ahmad, director and chief engineer at Johns Hopkins’ Kata Project, part of the BLAM (Brain, Learning, Animation, and Movement) Lab.
The technology behind the game was initially developed to help stroke patients regain critical motor function by providing a stimulating, fully immersive rehabilitation environment. Currently in clinical trials, the therapy lets patients put an arm in a robotic sling to maneuver a realistic but simulated dolphin on a screen.
Researchers and trainers at the National Aquarium worked with the Johns Hopkins team to develop the technology, which took about five years to complete. The game app was launched two weeks ago and is available for download in the iTunes store.
“We are not animating; we are simulating something with bones, muscles, and many complicated things,” Ahmad said. “When you play, it’s like you’re playing with a real creature in your machine, reacting to forces and acting on its own, almost. You see the subtle play-out of all the physical forces involved.”
The game allows players to look at dolphins in a completely different way by spending time inside their motor systems, Ahmad said.
Players begin with a dolphin named Bandit, who initially chases and eats fish and later must take on snapping mackerel and deadly bull sharks. Other games include a Commerson’s dolphin and a killer whale, a member of the dolphin family.
“I’ve always loved and been fascinated by them,” Ahmad said, adding that everyone on the development team—including a neuroscientist, an artist, engineers, and marine mammal experts affiliated with the National Aquarium—agreed.
“We all think it’s a very beautiful, smooth, and harmonious creature in its movement,” Ahmad said. Dolphins, he added, are also one of the few creatures that seem to be curious about humans.
The idea is to get humans more interested in helping dolphins.
“We think it’s a very powerful tool for conservation, because the emotional reality of this animal is becoming embedded in the player through this motor connection,” Ahmad said.
Diana Reiss, a marine mammal scientist and a psychology professor at New York’s Hunter College, who consulted on the project, said she hopes the game will get people to empathize with dolphins.
“We hope it will really draw people into the dolphin’s world,” Reiss said. “When you start working with it, you really do get engaged, and you do feel empathy doing these motoric movements, where you sort of become the dolphin. It creates this corresponding feeling. I was amazed.”
Reiss said that type of engagement can inspire support for conservation.
“What’s really important is giving people more than factoids,” she said. “They can read a lot and they’ll learn a lot, but that doesn’t necessarily connect with their hearts and minds. But when you start feeling like you’re this dolphin, that’s a deeper form of engagement.”
Eventually, the technology could be installed at museums and even in marine parks. The developers hope it might one day replace the display of captive dolphins altogether. The National Aquarium recently announced it is considering retiring its dolphins to sea pens.
“I hope it does replace dolphin shows,” Ahmad said. “It was bittersweet to study these dolphins at the aquarium, because it’s heartbreaking to realize how confined they are. Putting them in these small bathtubs, basically, I just think it’s something we need to stop.”