Why Swim With Sharks When You Can Sound Off With Orcas

sound off with orcas

Filmmakers Adam May and Amy Zimmerman created an immersive HoloLens experience (called Critical Distance) to tell the story of a threatened orca and her pod.

Orcas, stuck with the historical name “killer whales,” are mammals and the largest in the dolphin family. They are apex predators, able to hunt in “packs” and known as killers — but not of us — but of great white sharks and other sea prey. There is no record of an orca ever killing a human in the wild, while we tend to kill orcas more by accident than design.

Where Washington State meets Canada, you’ll find a family of orcas (now named “J-pod”) that’s lived in Puget Sound for thousands of years.

Yet their future is now uncertain as the orcas of J-pod are dying. The killer? Manmade noise pollution disorients their sonic abilities and interferes with their natural ability to communicate with each other.

The deaths are not deliberate but come from our lack of understanding of how our uncontrolled sonic behaviors can interfere with a species that depends upon sound as much as we depend upon speech.

The filmmaker’s premise is simple: Do we value this species enough to change how we indiscriminately our sound into sea?

How do you, asked the filmmakers, not only inform the public, but also spur them into action?

It’s no accident that these makers of the film turned to Microsoft’s HoloLens to create an experience that immerses the audience alongside holograms of the last J-pod orcas, showing what it’s like to swim with the pod, touch the skin of an orca, and feel the hearing loss an orca experiences when boats pass too close overhead.

Featuring the story of Kiki, the youngest female of the pod, HoloLens helps share the experience of listening the way Kiki does. To witness her native sea as she and other orcas do. To see exactly how humans impact J-pod — as well as the salmon they feed on and “the thousands of other habitats that could go silent” if these orcas die from too much unnatural sound.

Critical Distance, at once visceral and tangible thanks to HoloLens, shows how each orca can be identified through its specific markings and shape. Each pod member can be identified by unique personality traits such as swimming and hunting styles.

As humans, we share a lot in common with orcas: we both show individual personalities and embrace family bonds that last a lifetime. Orcas even gather in joy (for birth) and mourn together (for death).

Orcas speak their own language, a mother tongue of clicks and calls, with echolocation abilities critical to “see” sound. (Kiki and her J-pod family actually use their own orca dialect.)

With nearby bustling port cities like Vancouver and Seattle (surrounding Puget Sound), big ship engine noises echo all the way down to the sea floor, drowning out orca vocalizations and forcing them to seek new foraging and feeding habits.

As international shipping continues its rapid rise, 81 J-pod orcas are missing or dead since 1998. With the pod reduced now to 25 members, the survival of a young female orca like Kiki is likely the key to survival for her whole family.

By telling Kiki’s story in a way that “translates” sound into visual representations, HoloLens demonstrates its role beyond the industrial and retail applications its best known for.

While film alone has brought alive swimming with sharks, it takes a next-gen technology augmented reality and XR (extended reality) — to make humans listen to the plight of the largest of the dolphin family.

This HoloLens application (link to video below) clearly shows museums and corporates how to leverage the latest visual technologies. “Critical Distance” may be more than just the title of this survival story of the sea. Back on land, in human communications, the most critical distance is the last five centimeters (two inches). Which is why our industry keeps innovating—and why audio was enhanced decades ago by video and video is now enhanced by a cocktail of metaverse technologies.