Remember how just a few years ago, the thought of high-quality artificial waves with lengthy tube sections and air ramps seemed like the stuff of science fiction? Well, it's amazing how quickly science fiction turned into science fact, and today our Instagram feeds are chock-full of surfers locking into 10-second drainers in Lemoore, California, or aerial artistes performing all manner of inversions above the lip in Waco, Texas. So now that we're officially living in the surfy equivalent of a Blade Runner movie, where the lines are blurred between the natural and the artificial, what comes next? Well, for one thing, those lines may get a whole lot blurrier.
"We currently have the technology to go out to any reef in the world, take photos of that reef and recreate it using 3D printing," says PhD chemist and pro surfer Cliff Kapono. "I've been working with a group of scientists who want to replicate these reefs and display them as art, which will be a really cool way to show these environments to people and raise awareness about the health of reefs around the world. But when I realized what this technology could do, my first thought was, 'This needs to be in a wave pool.'"
Kapono has been working with reef ecologists John Burns, of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, and Clint Edwards, of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, to analyze the chemistry of reefs around the world, as well as create three-dimensional maps of those reefs using a process called "structure from motion photogrammetry." By placing "geo reference points" in the reef, special cameras can be used to capture its spatial dimensions, enabling scientists to map the reef accurately down to the last centimeter. Structure from motion photogrammetry has been used by everyone from archeologists creating 3D models of proto-human bones to video game developers trying to mimic a real-world location in a digital space. In the last few years, the same technology has been adopted by ocean scientists to map the seafloor as well.
"John Burns was creating models of the seafloor to better understand how it might change under certain circumstances," says Kapono. "If a hurricane happens, how does that event disturb a reef? What are the consequences of that and how can they be measured? To find out, you'd need to actually measure every centimeter of the reef, which isn't really feasible, but you can create a 3D model and then use that to see how the reef changes over time."
As fate would have it, around the same time Kapono started working with Burns and Edwards on reef mapping, the field of artificial wave technology was also advancing by leaps and bounds. The Kelly Slater Wave Company, Wavegarden and American Wave Machines have all since engineered systems capable of producing impressive surf. But while engineers from these companies have likely spent countless hours working out the bathymetry required to make more rippable artificial surf, the blueprints for some of the world's most-proven breaks are already right there for the taking.
"We could use this technology to recreate Restaurants in Fiji, The Box in Western Australia or Padang Padang in Indo," says Kapono. "Whatever reef wave you can think of, we have the ability to map it out and recreate it in its entirety. As far as the printing of the reef goes, this is something we can do now. It would be possible to print a reef the size of Backdoor and install it in a pool."
Kapono says that this fall, he and his colleagues plan on using structure from motion photogrammetry to create a 3D model of Pipeline. However, the biggest limitation to replicating surfing's most iconic waves in pools is, of course, the amount of energy wave pools are currently able to produce. But given time, as wave pool technology advances and engineers are able to produce more powerful freshwater swells, we could be watching surfers getting blown out of stand-up, Pipe-doppelganger tubes in, say, a Phoenix, Arizona wave park in 2029.
"With the technology available now, we're probably pretty far from being able to recreate a legitimate, 6-foot, artificial Pipe wave," says Kapono. "But we could definitely create the end bowl at V-Land, or all kinds of fun, smaller waves from around the world."
So what's the next step? According to Kapono, the biggest challenge is convincing one of the wave pool companies to take interest in ocean reef replication. The actual modeling and printing of the reef, determining the ideal depth and angle to place it based on historical swell data, and the installation are the easy part. Sure, it sounds crazy. But then again, so did a freshwater barrel in Cow Town, California, until just a few years ago.