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Vol. 15, no. 1
February / March 2012


Virtual Deep 

Story by Sheila Sarhangi

Photo by Olivier Koning 


Jackson, a freckled-faced 6-year-old
from Kane‘ohe, spots two Galapagos sharks. He “swims” closer, presses a button and snaps a photo. The score flashes on the large screen: 472 points. “Nice job!” responds a digitized voice. Jackson moves on to check out a masked angelfish and black coral.


Deep Sea Experience is not a video game, though it looks like one; it’s a digital simulation of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands’ “twilight zone,” a coral reef habitat that exists between 200 and 500 feet, where some 70 percent of the species are endemic to Hawai‘i, found nowhere else in the world. The permanent exhibit, which opened in 2010 at the Bishop Museum’s Science Adventure Center, uses 3-D virtual technology to take budding explorers into a mysterious world few will ever see.


O‘ahu resident Mark Loughridge is the mind behind the simulation. He had the enviable fortune of retiring at age 40 after selling his stake in one of the largest independent game developer companies in the world, which he co-founded. He wanted to apply his tech skills to education, so he started Creative Academies, which equips young people with advanced twenty-first-century skills. (He’s teaching kids as young as 7 years old to program their own apps.) Loughridge teamed up with Richard Pyle, a daredevil ichthyologist for Bishop Museum who studies the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (his was the digitized voice praising Jackson). Using advanced scuba technology, Pyle dives to depths usually achievable only with a submarine. The video he shoots there is then turned into a virtual marine world. Every detail in the virtual seascape is true to life: the species of corals and fish, their vibrant colors, the way creatures dart around the reef. But Loughridge isn’t a lone brainiac; he’s partnered with students at Hawai‘i Technology Academy, a public charter school in Waipahu, to create realistic 3-D models of the new species Pyle finds. “Hawai‘i has some of the best natural scientists in the world,” Loughridge says. “I want to help foster the sort of learning where young people get to work shoulder to shoulder with great minds, learn cuttingedge technology and use their creativity and imagination.”


The 6-year-old Jackson’s now on round two. He gets a nice broadside shot of the simulation’s only black-and-white striped butterfly fish (recently discovered by Pyle), and his score goes through the roof. “I’m good at this,” he brags.