Using a Virtual CAVE to Explore a Real One

By Tiffany Fox

PBS Nova has featured work by a team of researchers at the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute in a recent article in its NOVA NEXT online publication.

Diver Alberto Nava in the SunCAVE (photo by D. Rissolo).
Diver Alberto Nava in the SunCAVE (photo by D. Rissolo).

In the article, titled “How VR Helped Archaeologists Excavate a Fossil-Rich Submerged Cave,” QI Research Scientist Dominique Rissolo describes his team’s work at the QI Cultural Heritage Engineering Initiative (CHEI) to visualize – in high-resolution 3D – ancient human and animal remains found in Hoyo Negro, an underwater cave on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

The remains were discovered by lead diver Alberto Nava and his colleagues on the floor of a flooded pit 130 feet from the surface. Among them were parts of more than 30 animal skeletons, including the nearly intact skull and skeleton of a teenage girl of around 16 who had fallen to her death in the pit at the end of the last Ice Age some 13,000 years ago. Also found were fossils of Ice Age megafauna such as saber-tooth cats and huge Shasta ground sloths.

The researchers used the state-of-the art SunCAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) at QI, which allowed scientists associated with a NOVA documentary to interact with, map and measure the fossils, as well as plan future diving missions. QI and CHEI  are an integral part of the Hoyo Negro Project – working with the technical dive time to develop optimal image acquisition strategies, creating the high-resolution digital models, and powering the visual analytics necessary to bring this remote site to the scientific community.

The QI effort is being led by Rissolo, an archaeologist who has been working in the Yucatan for 25 years, as well as cultural heritage engineering specialists Falko Kuester and Vid Petrovic. Many of the researchers studying the site's diverse Ice Age fauna will never have a chance to go there. Not only has the virtual "twin" of the site enabled paleontologists to study the bones remotely, but they are making discoveries in the data – bones and tell-tale features that have eluded detection by divers at the bottom of the deep dark pit.  

“Not only is the virtual cave essential for a comprehensive fossil inventory,” writers NOVA Next writer Evan Hadingham, “it enables the team to take measurements and print accurate 3D replicas of specific bones, including Naia’s skull.” Explorers on the most recent National Geographic-funded mission to Hoyo Negro used the virtual SunCAVE to plan their excursion in detail, which ultimately allowed them to bring up parts of eleven ancient animals, some of them previously unknown.

To watch a documentary film about Hoyo Negro, visit

And to see QI’s Hoyo Negro website, visit

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox
(858) 246-0353

Related Links

PBS NOVA documentary on Hoyo Negro

Hoyo Negro website