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Connecting People to the Sea through 'Telepresence'

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Last fall, at the opening ceremony of the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena, Mich., famed ocean explorer Dr. Robert Ballard welcomed two special guests. But they weren't in the room. Instead, they were more than two thousand miles away, and underwater, in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Appearing on a giant screen behind Ballard, the two guests - a pair of scuba divers wearing special radio-equipped helmets - took the Michigan audience on a live, interactive tour of Monterey Bay's underwater kelp forest.

This special connection was made possible through "telepresence," an innovative technology Ballard pioneered in the 1980s while exploring the Titanic.

"Telepresence uses Internet2, a next generation network that allows real-time transmission of huge amounts of data and video," explains David Bizot, who oversees telepresence applications for the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program. "This allows people to interact with divers underwater while watching video of extreme detail and clarity."

Currently, visitors at specially equipped aquaria and universities can steer cameras through Monterey Bay's kelp forests as they watch sea lions frolic and fi sh dart through their habitat. They can also interact directly with divers, as occurred with the Michigan audience.

Working in partnership with Mystic Aquarium Institute for Exploration, JASON Foundation for Education, and Mote Marine Laboratory, the sanctuary program is deploying the technology in the Florida Keys, Channel Islands and Thunder Bay national marine sanctuaries.

To ensure wide dissemination of telepresence video and content, the partnership is reaching out to other potential collaborators in the scientific, education and outreach world, including school districts, K-12 classrooms and Boys and Girls Clubs.

Bizot says the sanctuary program is also developing a Web portal available to anyone with a regular Internet connection.

"As telepresence technology matures, new underwater habitats and shipwrecks will be brought to more classrooms and numerous sanctuary visitor centers, increasing Americans' special connection to the ocean."

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