1960's subsea habitat resurrected virtually

Virtual reality experts have brought to life the GLAUCUS subsea habitat made famous in 1965 when two divers belonging to the British Sub-Aqua Club spent a week living underwater for the first time.

Dr Colin Irwin, Research Fellow in the Department of Politics at the University of Liverpool, one of the divers was welcomed to the University School of Electronic, Electrical and Systems Engineering last week to witness the recreation. The reconstruction of the GLAUCUS habitat using Virtual Reality (VR) technologies began life as an undergraduate final year project led by Professor Bob Stone with contributions from Birmingham BEng students Daniel Beattie and David Nash. More recently, Bob’s Research Fellows, Drs Rob Guest and Cheng Qian, developed a more advanced VR version of the habitat, ready in time for Colin’s visit and the 50th anniversary of his week underwater.

Using archive information and data provided by Colin during a visit to the University in September 2013, the team was able to recreate the GLAUCUS – a 2-ton, 3.7m long and 2.1m diameter cylinder mounted onto a four-legged platform. The team also travelled to the site of the abandoned habitat, to collect photographs, underwater sound samples and even a unique aerial video sequence of the Breakwater Fort using a small drone, subsequently used to develop the 3D model of that structure. 


The VR experience now enables visitors to move around inside the GLAUCUS, using a VR headset. It has also been adapted to track motion using an infrared Motion Capture (MOCAP) system and enables interactivity with various objects (such as the bunks, desk and cupboards). Users can check oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, activate virtual oxygen bottles or “open” canisters of soda lime to make air levels safe, and experience a range of realistic sound effects produced by the School’s acoustics and sonar specialist, Dr Tim Collins.

Professor Stone said “this project has been two years in the making and was only made possible by the free time and effort given by the talented students and researchers of our School. This has been one of a number of successful maritime heritage projects we have completed over the past eighteen months. However, from a personal perspective, having seen the sad, deteriorating condition of the habitat’s remains and knowing that members of the public – both in my home town and further afield – have no idea of the national significance of this “tin can on legs”, this makes the Virtual GLAUCUS project all the more rewarding”.


Colin said, “I think that the University of Birmingham Team has done a wonderful job and it’s clear to me now that the only possible way you can have a truly educational “museum” of subsea shipwrecks and other aspects of inaccessible maritime heritage is through the powerful medium of Virtual Reality. With these demonstrations one can obtain a really good impression of conditions (although the Birmingham Team’s water was much clearer than was, and is still the case in Plymouth Sound!). As for the interior scenario, the team had got the scale spot on – in a number of cases I had to stoop and kneel, and I even found myself reaching out to gain support from a hull that was not even there in reality!”