There have been books, movies, in-depth reports and a musical about the Titanic, so why not a video game? That's what deep-sea ocean explorer David Gallo hopes for—not a game to best an opponent, but one to explore the world’s most famous shipwreck in ways never done before.
Gallo, director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, got hooked on the technology of exploration in 1987, two years after Bob Ballard and a French–U.S. team discovered the Titanic's remains. With new camera systems, robotics and sonar devices, Gallo found that he could explore the mysterious dark world of the deep sea in exquisite detail.
In 2010 Gallo's team at Woods Hole used autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to return to the wreckage site. (The same AUVs would be used in 2011 to locate the black boxes of Air France Flight 477, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.) With funding from the salvage company RMS Titanic, Inc., the team mapped the area of the wreck, which lies four kilometers deep, in unprecedented detail using sonar. They also photographed the Titanic and its debris field with high-definition digital video cameras deployed using robotics. That work is just now being released to the public in stunning new mosaic images.
We asked Gallo about the 2010 expedition, what he hoped to do with the data, and if he is planning any future excursions to the site.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What is it like to explore the Titanic wreck?
I wouldn't say I'm a Titanic groupie or a fanatic, but every time we go to Titanic, it's a very challenging place to explore. There are a lot of jagged edges, a lot of cables laying around. It is not an easy place to explore with submarines or with robots.
Why are we just now seeing some of these images from the 2010 expedition?
I know in an age where we have digital cameras, it probably doesn't make a lot of sense that it could be a whole year and a half between the expedition and when the images are first available to the public. But we're just now finishing analyzing the data that we collected back in 2010. We're putting together these mosaics that, in some cases, involve thousands of images. It takes an awful long time to make sure the navigation is right and the lighting is right and everything fits together in the right way.
We are getting all these images into beautiful mosaics where we can start to see football field–sized areas. You can see the whole bow of the Titanic sitting on the seafloor. That's 300-plus feet [100 meters] of ship. Or you can zoom right in on a crab that's climbing on the port side near the port side anchor. That's the beauty of doing things the way we're doing them. We're using digital video cameras. Each frame is a high-quality, high-definition image, so every second you have tens of images—almost 30 images every second. We're choosing from what's best and putting them together into these big mosaics.
Do you have plans to go back to the Titanic?
We're looking at going back. But it won't be immediately. We still want to look at all the information we have in hand. This is the first time we've ever made a real map of the seafloor around Titanic and of the Titanic itself. So for the first time now we can use these maps. We've got the big picture maps that are three miles across by five miles [five by eight kilometers], which is huge. And inside that area we picked a smaller box that's about one by 1.5 miles [1.6 by 2.4 kilometers], where we used even higher resolution imagery and techniques to really get every detail that we could out of that small area.
So with these very detailed maps of the wreck site and of the surrounding geology, we can start to plan what we want to look at—what the goals of the expedition really would be.
So like a trip on land, now you have a map of where you want to go?
In terms of size, it's like looking down on Manhattan Island and then focusing intensely on midtown Manhattan.
In the big map you can see the surrounding geology of the seafloor and then this little tiny dot in the middle—that's Titanic. And then inside that area when you zoom in, in a Google Earth sort of way, you see the dramatic shape of the bow and then the stern and then all of the objects that fell out of the ship on the way to the bottom. It is pretty dramatic that way. It's the first time we've ever had that bird's-eye view of the Titanic site with this kind of detail.
And what do these images tell you about the disaster?
Hitting the iceberg may not have been very dramatic, just the popping of seams along the side of the ship. So it was not the big gashes that were originally thought, but several long slits on the side. And actually we think we may see those, for the first time. We think we are looking at some of those buckled plates.
What would be the point of having a future expedition get even more detailed images?
I'll give you an example. There is a manufacturer of hot sauce that's been around for a long time, and they had bottles on the Titanic. And they came to us and asked, "Have you seen any of these bottles?" So we are looking. But, that's something you could turn over to the public at-large, for crowd-sourcing. You can ask everyone who can find a bottle like this, to please report it in.
Somewhere on the Titanic is a Persian book of poetry called the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and this particular copy of it is jewel encrusted. And where is it? I don't know. No one knows. No one has seen it yet, because we don't have time to just look for the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. But it's out there somewhere, either on the ship or in the debris field. There are many things like that. Having a large audience exploring the images could actually help us get some work done.
You know, I'm not going to look through 100,000 images of Titanic for the Rubáiyát or go through the entire debris field, but if you get 1,000 people or 10,000 people looking, I think we could cover a lot of ground pretty quickly.
How do you envision organizing these crowd-sourcing expeditions?
I've attended many video game conferences, so I do speak with a little bit of authority that what I see there is so far advanced than what we have in science that it's time that we start getting together. I intend to keep pushing on this notion of virtual exploration.
Like with World of Warcraft?
There is something about it, using a joystick and a controller and having the TV screen almost becomes transparent as your brain and your emotions focus on what's on that screen. And the beauty of it is you can go where you want to go in these 3-D virtual worlds. They are very powerful.
There is no reason we can't have Titanic in that. And no reason why we can't have docents in there, people that are in there that are experts. Suppose you have someone who's explored deep inside the Titanic and wants to take you into the engine room. And this person knows how to get there. There's no reason why you can't all meet up and go together. And that person leads you, and you talk with this person all the way through. To me, it's an incredibly exciting time to be able to get these worlds into the public at-large.
We're always talking about video games competing with the classroom, but there's no way in my mind a textbook can compare with that kind of experience. You have the joystick in your hand, and you're exploring with your friends and colleagues these virtual worlds. It's entertaining and educational and, more importantly, it's an experience.
There is nothing like that in science. In living rooms across the planet there is no way you can plug into science that way, and it's about time we did.
What is your favorite part of the Titanic?
There are places on board that ship where you know very profound things have happened, where loved ones have said their goodbyes. It's those spots that have a huge emotional impact on you. And there are many stories on the Titanic, whether in the bridge where the steering wheel would have been or at the very bow, the anchors, the stern or in some of the cabins. It's hard to pick out one particular thing, because it is such a ship full of dreams and stories that there is something there for everybody.
No one I know is out joyriding around Titanic. Everyone goes with a sense of purpose and privilege that we are able to visit this icon of the deep.
What makes the Titanic so special?
What makes Titanic special was what happened that night and that so many people died, and also that it was the maiden voyage. And the stories of those people. There was nothing special about Titanic herself, no more than her two sister ships. The Olympic lived a long life and eventually ended up in a scrap yard. The Britannic sunk in World War I off the coast of Greece.
The Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the coast of Italy, was bigger than Titanic and carried more passengers. If that ship had slipped further off those rocks and ended up in deeper water, then maybe we would have seen more lives lost even on a grander scale than Titanic herself.
Even after 100 years the ocean is just as dangerous now as it was back then. A lot still depends on the skill of the crew.