Winter 2022

Portable Inflatable Ocean Space Habitat

Thinking the unthinkable

A shy hammerhead shark dances, warily, around two delighted divers. 

When it’s time to rest or hide, the divers slip into a remarkable underwater tent that offers them a dry space to decompress, talk, even eat — and extend their workday under the sea off Andros Island, east of Miami.

The tent was planted about 20 feet deep along the barrier reef in the Bahamas for the filming of a recent Discovery Channel show highlighting the benefits of this invention. The tent is the creation of professional diver Michael Lombardi and Winslow Burleson, a University of Arizona professor in both the School of Information and the Health Sciences Design Program, where he is the director of research. 

Seeing his invention at center stage in a Discovery episode was like a dream, Burleson says. “It was very exciting. We did things in ways that nobody else could do.”

The tent, called the Ocean Space Habitat, offers two benches where divers can take a break and thus extend their diving time to as much as 10 hours. The shell is fabric-reinforced polyurethane stretched over a bell-shaped aluminum frame. At 4.5 feet tall, it looks a bit like a tall beach umbrella. The tent uses what’s called rebreathing technology, scrubbing the carbon dioxide out of the air, and allows extended periods of recovery without wearing breathing apparatus.

Because sharks, like many wild creatures, are often elusive and cautious around humans, the Discovery team relied on Burleson’s tent for both camouflage and decompression, and it worked.

Small enough to pack up and carry as checked luggage, the tent can be adapted in size and in other ways depending on the mission objectives. “We have lots of different strategies,” Burleson says. “We are always coming up with new tradeoffs.”

UArizona offers the tent to its partners in scientific research. So far, those partners have included the City University of Hong Kong, New York University, Lombardi Undersea LLC and Subsalve USA.

Burleson, who holds 11 patents, considers himself a social inventor, an artist and a pioneer in human-computer interaction. He has a doctorate from the MIT Media Lab and a master’s degree in product design from Stanford. He’s a distinguished member of the Association for Computing Machinery, and the National Academy of Engineering named him one of the nation’s “brightest young engineering researchers and educators.” His work has twice received Time Magazine’s Top Inventions of the Year award. 

More recently, he’s been advancing ideas for projects with partners in distant parts of the world. Burleson lights up when he talks about a planned global “holodeck project” — a reference to Star Trek’s depictions of people interacting with holographic virtual settings. Faculty from music, astronomy and the School of Information will collaborate in a production called StellarScape celebrating the birth of a star, set for January 2022. It will feature dancers and singers from remote locations on stage at UArizona. 

At UArizona’s Biosphere 2, Burleson is hoping to deploy futuristic underwater sensors that may lead to use of his underwater tent in the facility’s ocean simulation. In the 2.6-million-liter sea at the glass-enclosed research site north of Tucson, Burleson’s research tent could aid in the study of coral reefs and improve human-robot interactions in outer space and in planetary exploration.

And a few next-generation inventors may emerge from Burleson’s classes. Called Vertically Integrated Projects, Burleson’s sections are Teachable Agents for Geometry and AI for Medical Interviewing. Class activities, he says, include mimicking a robot and dividing its various tasks. “And then they will actually become the robot. Developing a personal stream of consciousness about a problem helps foster innovation and discovery.”

Another Burleson course uses artificial intelligence to train doctors in politeness and better bedside manners. “They may be being too brusque and not know it,” he says, and he uses AI to soften their style.

“The University of Arizona offers these courses as hands-on, team-based research seminars,” Burleson says. “The payoff is a lot of synergy.”