Nonprofit’s cruelty-free, therapeutic VR experience lets you swim with dolphins

Since the 1970s, some researchers have described the positive therapeutic effect that swimming with dolphins can have on people, particularly those with disabilities. However, so-called “dolphin therapy” is not readily available to everyone. For one thing, it can be prohibitively expensive, while the idea of people leaping into pools with captive animals has also been criticized as cruel by environmentalists. A Dutch nonprofit thinks it has the answer, though — and it involves virtual reality (VR).

The Dolphin Swim Club is the work of Marijke Sjollema, who has been pursuing her dream for well over a decade. Working with her husband, Benno Brada, Sjollema has developed a 360-degree VR experience that promises to bring dolphin therapy to the masses — using nothing more than your nearest swimming pool and a VR headset.

“To be actually swimming, while watching the wild dolphins in VR, adds to the total immersion of the experience,” Sjollema told Digital Trends. “Even I, who directed the film, had moments where I was fooled by the VR, and found myself acting like I was in the water with real dolphins. The water adds two elements to the VR experience. [For one,] sound is transmitted very differently. Because the world of dolphins is very acoustic, we paid a lot of attention to that. The other is the water’s magnifying effect that expands the field of view.”

At present, the project is using a Samsung S7 smartphone, mounted on diving goggles with 3D-printed elements, to form a makeshift VR headset. In the future, Sjollema hopes that additional investment will allow the production of a consumer version made from recycled plastics recovered from oceans.

So far, the VR dolphin therapy has been used in trials with impressive effects. One tester found that the experience helped him to “completely forgot” a severe pain in his arm, while others reported that it made them feel “peaceful.” The project has been the recipient of a 50,000 euro ($59,000) grant from the Dutch government. The films being used were shot in late 2015 in the Red Sea by a camera crew of divers whom specialize in VR. The 360-degree video has also been used, minus the swimming pool element, in more than 150 hospitals and health care institutions worldwide.

While we’d love to see some clinical trials exploring exactly how well this VR therapy works, it’s definitely interesting — and yet another example of how virtual reality can be used to great effect as a therapeutic tool.

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