Virtual Reality on the Water

VAtoN in New Zealand

VAtoN in New Zealand

Courtesy Vesper Marine

I compare the unveiling of new electronics products – whether from mega-companies like Apple or smaller marine manufacturers — to the adrenaline-soaked moments I had as a child on Christmas morning. So I’m dying to share what I saw during a dinner meeting last night with Vesper Marine’s co-founder Jeff Robbins.

Vesper, a New Zealand company that builds AIS (automatic identification system) products, entertained boating and fishing writers this week primarily to offer a sneak peek at its brand new WatchMate Vision, a touch-screen Class B AIS transponder with Wi-Fi.

This innovative, dedicated color AIS unit is still awaiting FCC approval in the United States, so it won't be available for sale until — most likely — April. Still, I do plan to spell out all its amenities in our Miami boat show coverage next week. In the meantime — to whet your appetite — take a look at the unit and the screenshots posted as a gallery with this blog.

While the Vision and its partner the XB-8000, a black-box, Wi-Fi AIS transponder, show off a number of unique attributes in the AIS category, that’s not all this Kiwi manufacturer is doing. Consider VIRTUAL Aids to Navigation or VAtoNs. Sounds like something out of George Lucas’ playlist, I know.

In my mind, this is what I envision: I look at my plotter screen and see ghost images of buoys and channel markers. When I look up to the waterway ahead, nothing but sea and land. Switch on a special projection system that displays the virtual buoys on the windscreen, and there they are ahead, like Disney holograms.

Ok, we're not quite there yet, but Vesper has installed its first VAtoN in remote New Zealand. Here's its story.

Remote New Zealand waters are rimmed by mountainous shorelines and feature deep fjords where cruise ships carry nature-loving passengers to share spectacular views. But as in many places of great beauty, there are also great dangers — potentially dramatic seas and hidden hazards. One hazard in particular, the Tarapunga Rock, lies just below the surface, close to the entrance to Doubtful Sound.

The authority responsible for navigating the region tried installing a buoy — a regular, visual aid to navigation — but it broke apart in the sometimes-violent swells that slam Tarapunga. The authority asked Vesper to install an AIS transponder at an existing, land-based navigation light about 3 miles away. That transponder is programmed to send data showing Tarapunga as an AIS target so that its exact location appears on any vessel’s AIS/plotter screen. The target becomes visible to the ship from at least 10 miles away.

This virtual safety net could be used in areas where continual shoaling occurs or where a ship has sunk in navigable waters. It could mark particularly hazardous areas where visual aids become difficult to see at night. And it could potentially unclutter our busiest ports and harbors.

Yes, much of this pertains right now to commercial shipping and cruising safety, although I can see future benefits for the fisherman. Still, I’m just excited about the technology this represents. As someone fascinated by the almost limitless bounds of the human mind, I love the sense of anticipation from just the imagining.