CaveSim electronic virtual cave lets you try before you spelunk
By C.C. Weiss
April 14, 2012
You could easily go to a rock gym to try climbing or throw on a pair of boots and hike a local trail, but you'd need to invest a little more time and planning to try caving. You could commit to joining a caving club or pay for a guided tour, but options for just going out and giving it a go are quite limited. CaveSim is a unique innovation that lets prospective cavers get a taste for the sport by providing a virtual indoor cave environment. The device includes electronic sensors for video-game-like scoring features, allowing for tracking your personal score and competing against others.
Cavers like to keep things on the down low more than other outdoor sports enthusiasts. Because of the fragile nature of caves - and the disrespectful nature of humans - the National Speleological Society, the US's caving association, encourages cavers not to share the location of caves on websites or by word of mouth. Casual cave visitation can result in vandalism, landowner relations strains and safety issues, among other problems. While you'll find multiple websites dedicated to things like rock climbing routes and mountain bike trails, information on cave locations is quite sparse on the Web.
The CaveSim provides an interesting way of protecting caves and bridging the disconnect with potential cavers, or at least it could if it ever catches on. Similar to a rock gym, the CaveSim is a controlled simulation that lets you try the sport without buying gear, joining clubs, signing up for tours, etc. It's a quick way to practice or see if you can perform through the rigors of the sport.
CaveSim designer Dave Jackson, a caving hobbyist with an MIT electrical engineering degree, came up with the idea when participating in a cave rescue seminar. Because nothing like the CaveSim was available at the time of the seminar in 2008, organizers used a makeshift cave concoction of furniture and tape. The simulation fell well short of a realistic cave environment, and some participants even moved things around in order to travel through the simulated cave - not exactly something you can do in an actual cave. The next day, when the seminar switched gears to practicing in an actual cave, rescuers were trying to shake off bad habits developed when barreling through tables and tape.
"Unfortunately, on our second day in underground practice, there was a little bit of damage done to the real cave we were using," Jackson explained. "And I thought about the picnic tables, and I thought there was a better way to do this."
After about two years of development, Jackson found that better way, albeit in a slightly larger form than he originally planned on. What he came up with is a 48-foot-long (14.6 m) virtual cave that twists and bends over its 13 x 18 foot (4 x 5.5 m) footprint. It includes model cave features with built-in electronic sensors that provide feedback about your performance. In a real cave, you want to avoid knocking into formations because that can be harmful to both you and the cave. With the electronic tracking system, CaveSim encourages participants to crawl through as carefully as they would in an actual cave - unlike the picnic table scenario Jackson encountered prior.
While CaveSim was conceived for rescue training, it's now being used for anyone that wants to try caving in a realistic, virtual environment. Beginner cavers can try the sport out and get an idea of what it's like, and experienced cavers and rescuers can use it to keep their skills sharp.
Currently, only the original CaveSim exists. Jackson and his wife Tracy, who are both members of the NSS, transport it to events around the country. In fact, we originally stumbled upon the innovation on Kickstarter, where the Jacksons are trying to raise money to transport CaveSim to the National Speleological Society's annual convention in West Virginia, from their home near Colorado Springs. Their immediate goal is to rent a trailer, but if they receive enough support, they'll purchase a trailer and affix CaveSim inside it permanently, so that it's easy to transport from place to place.
The Jacksons also offer customized cave systems for sale as an attraction for amusement parks, climbing gyms and similar businesses. Given the large size of the CaveSim and the Jacksons' limited production capabilities (and day jobs), they currently only intend to build a small volume for interested businesses. As you might expect, it's a "call for details" type of buy, and CaveSim's website does not list pricing information. So far, one Colorado Springs-area customer is working with the Jacksons to get one built.