The freshwater mussel is an unassuming creature. It does not take up a lot of space in the world and it doesn’t have the glamour of big aquatic creatures. It isn’t a culinary delicacy and it doesn’t inspire the creation of cartoon characters. Why bother giving it a second glance, even?

An interdisciplinary team at Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) begs to differ.

The humble freshwater mussel is critical to the delicate ecosystems of rivers and streams. Its space — the Benthic zone at the very lowest level of water bodies — is becoming more and more barren because of the species’ endangered status.

“We’ve all driven past a stream or a river. Maybe we’ve gone canoeing or swimming in these water bodies. But the incredible ecosystems at the Benthic zone go unnoticed,” said Justin Perkinson, assistant professor in the School of Performing Arts and researcher for the Benthos 360 project.

In late 2018, Perkinson was introduced to Matthew Hull, an environmental nanoscientist at the university’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS). One of the primary causes behind the dwindling numbers of freshwater mussels is water contamination in rivers and streams. These mussels filter particles from water and help keep rivers healthy and functional. Pollution and contamination degrade water quality and reduce the ability of these sensitive creatures to survive and reproduce. Hull had an idea to bring this issue to the forefront using virtual reality (VR), and with Perkinson’s creative input, that broad idea became what is now Benthos 360.

“With this project, we are trying to explain and make people aware of a complicated environmental problem that affects some of the most imperiled creatures in our very backyard, at the Clinch River in Appalachia,” explained Hull.

A bald man wearing goggles and a snorkel examines a mussel in the Clinch River,
Justin Perkinson "interviews" mussels in Clinch River. Photo by Matthew Hull for Virginia Tech.

“There’s a hidden world down there.”

Perkinson, an award-winning filmmaker and VR creator, discovered the magic of the river ecosystem through this project.

“The mussel life cycle is incredible.” His face lit up as he explained the story behind Benthos 360. “They rely on fish to reproduce. They release their larvae into fish, and the fish carry those around until the mussels can survive on their own in the Benthic zone.”

With the help of Jess Jones, restoration biologist and associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, Perkinson managed to capture the Benthic zone in its full glory using 360-degree video. They dove into the Clinch River with a specialized camera system, while Tanner Upthegrove, ICAT’s immersive audio specialist, used a hydrophone to “interview some mussels,” as Hull put it. 

Three researchers take photos as they're immersed in a river. One is wearing a hat and pink shirt, standing up but bent at the waist holding a camera in the water. Another is in a wetsuit, laying down in the river, camera underwater with snorkel gear on his face. The third is in a wetsuit squatting into the river.
The Benthos 360 team takes a dive into the Clinch River to produce the audiovisual experience of the project. Photo by Matthew Hull for Virginia Tech.

Then they painstakingly stitched the videos, complementing them with an immersive audio experience to create the transformative experience that is Benthos 360. “It’s almost as if you can take a dive into the Benthic zone without getting wet,” Perkinson explained.

“Our main goal was to relay the compelling story of freshwater mussels,” said Hull. This story exposes a hidden world that is at risk of extinction, and brings attention to the perseverance of conservation biologists such as Jones.

Ultimately, Benthos 360 is an immersive audiovisual experience. This story was designed to be experienced through a variety of different platforms, including a VR headset, or even a smartphone. One place where it truly comes to life, however, is in the Cube, a multidisciplinary, collaborative research environment located inside the Moss Arts Center. Here, a massive cylindrical projection screen created for immersive experiences transports visitors to the underwater world of freshwater mussels.

“We received a SEAD grant from ICAT in 2019 and since then the institute has been instrumental in executing the project. The Cube is the perfect venue for communicating science in a way that not only immerses people, but allows them to have a shared experience of virtual reality, which isn’t possible with a headset that isolates the individual user,” Hull explained.

The Benthic zone remains hidden from the human eye, but Benthos 360 solves that by bringing humans into that world using VR. “It’s almost as if you’re shrinking the people and letting them get a glimpse into this fascinating ecosystem,” said Hull.

Moving on to bigger projects

After receiving a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Interior and support from Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the Benthos 360 team is now using immersive technology alongside more traditional filmmaking tools to create training modules for conservationists and restoration biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These scientists will be trained on how to respond to chemical spills using the power of VR.

“VR can provide an immersive, realistic mode of training when used alongside more technical manuals or documents,” said Perkinson.

The team behind Benthos 360 is working on these modules together. “The people make the project. As an interdisciplinary team that combines nanoscience, conservation biology, cinematography, and immersive audio, we work so well together. The great rapport among this team is what makes this execution possible,” said Hull.

Freshwater mussels might seem like a weirdly specific species to invest so much time and effort in, but as scientists and artists, the Benthos 360 team finds beauty in the most unassuming of natural spaces.

“We wanted to tell a critical story that teaches people and inspires them. We want young children and students to experience Benthos 360 and learn about the hidden beauty and struggles of the natural world, and inspire them to pursue their own cause for our environment,” said Hull.

Benthos 360 will be one of the featured projects at the 2022 ACCelerate Creativity + Innovation Festival. Held on April 8-10, 2022, at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., the festival is presented by ICAT and the Smithsonian Institution.

Written by Aanila Kishwar Tarannum, graduate assistant for the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology.