With climate change and ocean conservation becoming more pressing issues by the day, Founder and CEO Patrick Flanagan wanted to help people connect with the beauty of the ocean and the importance of research and conservation.
But after a decade working in science and education, he didn’t see solutions that were sufficiently engaging or equitable, especially for communities that lived far from the coast and had trouble accessing the ocean.
He knew the best way to reach more folks and change hearts and minds was to combine four powerful tools:
- Emotionally resonant, immersive experiences
- Collaborative, shared exploration
- Engaging, multisensory, hands-on learning
- Mobile education that brings the ocean to the people
So he founded Ocean Learning Lab and Immersive Experiences ("OLLIE"), and got to work building a submarine.
The mobile virtual submarine, parked outside of the Cambridge (MA) Public Library
Or, more accurately, a virtual submarine, on wheels.
Under the supervision and guidance of nonprofit sponsors Ocean Alliance and Maritime Gloucester, and with the help of donations, grants, and a bunch of volunteers, Patrick took a 28-foot enclosed race car trailer, insulated it, and put a tail, propellers, and a wheelchair-accessible ramp on it.
But that's just the outside. Because it's what's inside that counts:
The interior of the mobile virtual submarine, showing immersive video of a coral reef in Bermuda
Outfitted with seven 4K TVs framed to look like giant portholes, curved walls to simulate being inside a pressurized vehicle, industrial lighting and HVAC, and 5.1 surround sound, we created a multisensory immersive space that looks and feels like a submarine.
To truly create the sensation of being surrounded by the ocean, we filmed our own custom footage for each screen. To create this content, we traveled or sent our cameras to film marine environments around the globe: the Philippines, Bermuda, Israel, and the coasts of Massachusetts and California.
Working in partnership with scientists and conservationists in the field, we captured a variety of ecosystems, including coral reefs, kelp forests, and even the bottom of the ocean, 823 m / 2700 ft deep!
The R/V Nautilus launches the Remotely-Operated Vehicle ("ROV") Hercules, with OLLIE's cameras aboard
More than just a window gallery for immersive video, we designed and built a variety of interactive tools to tell the stories of ocean science and conservation. These included:
- Digital microscopes for looking at marine invertebrates;
- An Augmented Reality Sandbox for exploring topography, watersheds, and seafloor geology; and
- Touchscreen kiosks and digital map tables for investigating data on everything from sea level rise to plastic pollution.
Here's a video of Patrick giving a tour of the inside of the submarine and the interactive tools within:
And it was a hit!
Completed in June of 2019, OLLIE hit the road to bring the ocean to the people. Traveling over 3,200 miles, OLLIE connected more than 4,400 people with ocean science and conservation in more than a dozen events and programs. We visited universities, elementary schools, museums, conferences, festivals, and libraries—even the 2019 Boston ComiCon!
Exploring the global ocean floor with elementary school students
Discussing seafloor geology with students at the MA High School Marine Science Symposium
With the success of 2019, 2020 was shaping up to be a fantastic one. We brought on a new team member, we were connecting with new partners, planning big events, and even organizing a cross-country road trip.
But, it turns out, the things that make OLLIE great for spreading ideas also made it great for spreading airborne viruses!
As the pandemic shut down museums, schools, businesses and events across the country, we had to cancel all our programs planned for the rest of the year. Our cross-country road trip was scrapped. Our conferences were postponed. And one of our partners, hosting our most exciting and high-profile event of the year, went out of business.
So we did some reckoning.
In response to the pandemic, a lot of organizations and programs either shut down or went online. But we're committed to the power of shared, in-person experiences. To the value of interacting with other people and the physical world. And to bringing cutting-edge technology and high-quality education to communities wherever they are.
Over the last four years as this project has grown, we've been lucky to meet and work with people from all over the world. Along the way, we've encountered a phrase over and over that is simultaneously inspiring and frustrating:
“That’s amazing! I wish I could have that in my country!”
People everywhere are excited about this idea, and want it in their communities. Not just in Boston, San Francisco or Tulsa, but in Bermuda, Seychelles, and Taiwan. In Portugal. Norway. Uruguay. New Zealand. Amazing places, full of current and future ocean lovers, where a submarine-in-a-trailer just can't go.
Climate and ocean change is a global problem. Humanity is a global community. We decided to create a global solution, designed to transcend borders and continents.
Our new model takes the best elements of OLLIE and expands them into a scalable, international network of immersive spaces. Rather than one virtual submarine on a trailer, we're creating a fleet of simulated underwater research stations inside modified shipping containers. As we distribute them around the world, we’ll grow, connect and empower the global community of ocean advocates.
We've learned a lot from building and running the prototype mobile virtual submarine. Based on those insights, our new space will be:
- larger, modular, and designed to safely welcome more visitors
- even more immersive and emotionally impactful
- moved and operated with a lower carbon footprint
- able to be efficiently built at scale
- easier to create and share new content for
- capable of shipping anywhere on the planet.
The path has been challenging, exciting, frustrating, and rewarding. We've built things, we've broken things, we're learning and growing. We're excited to take the best parts of OLLIE to the global stage.
Welcome to the next chapter of our journey.