If you can’t get to the Great Barrier Reef, then the new interactive reef exhibition on the giant screens of The Cube at QUT offers the next best thing.
Opening to the public tomorrow (Saturday January 11), The Living Reef is a 3D underwater ecosystem with complex artificial intelligence (AI) driving the marine species to behave as they would in the ocean, and coral ‘grown’ using special algorithms that replicate what happens in nature.
There are 20 different species of fish and marine life swimming through the 10-metre tall screens – numbering about 10,000 in total – and 11 different species of coral, all generated by The Cube Studio developers with input from QUT researchers.
Cube Studio Manager Simon Harrison said advances in technology since The Cube’s first reef program, Virtual Reef, was launched in 2013 meant the team could now create an even more realistic virtual marine world.
“Essentially we stripped down the previous reef program and rebuilt it,” he said. “Previously, the fish and marine animals had predetermined programmed paths and they shared the same animations for how they swam and their other behaviours.
“Now we’ve used AI to give each of the fish species its own set of rules, and these rules follow as accurately as possible how those fish behave in nature – what they like to eat, how they swim in schools, what other fish they like to hang out with or which ones to avoid.
“Then within the digital environment we let them go and they behave the way they would in nature within their rules, but not following any set paths. In a way each fish is ‘thinking’ for itself.”
To make the reef coral look as realistic as possible, instead of using traditional methods of visually sculpting from photographs, technical artist Lucas Milner adapted a mathematical method called the ‘space colonisation algorithm’ to mimic nature.
The team consulted with QUT coral reef researchers Brett Lewis and Dr Luke Nothdurft for information and insights into coral, then set up varying parameters to digitally ‘grow’ different coral types.
“How coral grows depends on such things as how much space it has, how it competes for that space, and the amount of food it has access to,” Mr Milner said.
“So those were the parameters we set, along with others, and we generated coral of varying types and ages.
“Using the algorithms, we were able to create unique pieces of coral within seconds. These were then handed over to the digital artists to add colour and place them throughout the reef scene.”
The developers have also created touchscreen activities for visitors as they explore The Living Reef. You can fossick for shells in the seabed, free a turtle from a discarded fishing net in Turtle Tangle, and test your skills with Reef Ranger, a game in which you pilot an animated version of QUT’s own underwater robot RangerBot to help grow coral and eliminate coral-eating starfish.
RangerBot was developed by Professor Matthew Dunbabin as a vision-based robotic tool to help monitor and manage various threats to the Great Barrier Reef, and late last year was again used to disperse coral larvae on to reef areas in need of restoration after the yearly coral mass spawning.
The Living Reef is the highlight of the QUT Summer Holiday Program at The Cube, which starts tomorrow and runs until January 18. A Family Fun Day tomorrow will celebrate the launch, feature a range of hands-on family activities, and showcase QUT research. Brett Lewis and Professor Matthew Dunbabin with RangerBot will be among researchers on hand to answer questions.
The Living Reef will also be on The Cube screens throughout the year, with developers planning to add new elements.
The Cube is located in the Science and Engineering Centre (P Block) of QUT’s Gardens Point campus in Brisbane.