Re­searchers livestream a U.S. marsh­land for fun – and sci­ence

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LIFE - By Matt O’Brien

PLY­MOUTH, Mass.: If a tree falls in the Tid­marsh Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary, it doesn’t mat­ter if there’s no one around. You can hear it any­way.

That’s be­cause re­searchers have hid­den dozens of wire­less sen­sor nodes, mi­cro­phones and cam­eras among the cat­tails and cedars of this Ply­mouth, Mas­sachusetts, na­ture re­serve. Sounds picked up from the marsh and nearby wood­land feed into an ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence sys­tem that can iden­tify frogs or crick­ets, ducks or a pass­ing air­plane.

One goal is to help sci­en­tists bet­ter un­der­stand chang­ing cli­mates and im­prove wildlife restora­tion tech­niques. Be­yond that, though, re­searchers want to use the col­lected data to help power an on­line vir­tual re­al­ity world – a kind of al­ter­nate uni­verse mod­eled on live con­di­tions in the marsh, but pop­u­lated with fan­ci­ful crea­tures in­vented in a com­puter sci­ence lab.

Could this be the fu­ture of the na­ture walk?

As wire­less sen­sors get cheaper, longer-last­ing and more so­phis­ti­cated, they’re in­creas­ingly turn­ing up every­where. We’re al­ready see­ing them in “smart” homes and cities, pulling in data that can be an­a­lyzed in real time to smooth traf­fic flows, save en­ergy, mon­i­tor pol­lu­tion or re­spond to crime.

But what hap­pens when you ap­ply such an in­ter­net-con­nected net­work to na­ture?

A re­search team at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy has been try­ing it out at Tid­marsh, a for­mer cran­berry bog con­vert­ing back to nat­u­ral wet­lands just a few kilo­me­ters from where the Pil­grims landed in 1620.

Re­motely spy­ing on na­ture isn’t new, but the project goes be­yond sim­ple we­b­cams fixed on a hawk’s nest or sea li­ons’ fa­vorite pier – or even the more so­phis­ti­cated acous­tic sen­sors de­signed to de­tect an­i­mal poach­ers.

The team’s goals for what they call the Liv­ing Ob­ser­va­tory in­clude sup­port­ing wildlife restora­tion ef­forts. The sen­sors mea­sure tem­per­a­ture, mois­ture and other en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions.

But a broader mis­sion is to of­fer peo­ple – in­clud­ing chil­dren – a deeper un­der­stand­ing of na­ture us­ing their lap­tops, phones or head­sets.

They can do so re­motely or in per­son while walk­ing a na­ture trail, said the project’s vi­sion­ary, Glo­ri­anna Daven­port, a re­tired pro­fes­sor and co-founder of the MIT Me­dia Lab.

“It’s gor­geous to walk in the woods and not be fid­dling with a cell­phone,” Daven­port said.

On the other hand, she added, what if you can learn more about the mi­cro­bial en­vi­ron­ment, or the re­turn of an en­dan­gered species, from a well-crafted smart­phone app or a vir­tual re­al­ity game?

If it works here, Daven­port said, re­searchers are al­ready en­vi­sion­ing more am­bi­tious projects deep in the Ama­zon rain­for­est – or on the moon.

The idea has skep­tics who are wor­ried about the in­tru­sion of tech­nol­ogy and con­stant sur­veil­lance into the world’s last places with­out it. The Mas­sachusetts Audubon So­ci­ety man­ages the 190-hectare sanc­tu­ary and took some time be­fore it agreed to out­fit it with livestream­ing cam­eras along with mi­cro­phones. It was as­sured that hu­man voices would be scram­bled.

Ed­u­ca­tors have also asked Daven­port why she would want to en­cour­age kids to carry around their smart­phones in­stead of just ap­pre­ci­at­ing na­ture with­out them.

“And I went, ‘Why not?’ That’s how they learn. That is their mech­a­nism of in­ter­act­ing,” she said.

The sanc­tu­ary is be­gin­ning to flour­ish as it changes from a heav­ily fer­til­ized in­dus­trial cran­berry farm into a wet­land full of in­sects, birds and na­tive plants.

The base camp for MIT schol­ars is also Daven­port’s home, which she built in 1999 af­ter first vis­it­ing the prop­erty in the early 1980s. As landown­ers, she and her hus­band part­nered with Audubon to trans­form the land into what it might have looked like be­fore it was carved into man-made bogs in the 19th cen­tury.

The re­search projects re­flect the di­verse in­ter­ests of mul­ti­me­dia schol­ars. Daven­port is a doc­u­men­tary film­maker. Oth­ers are com­puter sci­en­tists or mu­si­cians.

One project cre­ates sound­tracks driven by sen­sor read­ings – such as higher pitches that in­di­cate warmer tem­per­a­tures. An­other re­sem­bles a more ethe­real ver­sion of the Poke­mon Go aug­mented re­al­ity game, but with elk­like phan­toms gal­lop­ing around a vir­tual world mod­eled on the marsh.

If the sen­sors pick up a rain­storm at the real-life Tid­marsh, the an­i­mated crea­tures ap­pear to get wet.

If there’s a loud, sud­den sound, they be­come star­tled.

Yet an­other ex­per­i­ment in­volves strap­ping on a spe­cial head­set while walk­ing through the sanc­tu­ary.

On a hot af­ter­noon in late sum­mer, MIT re­searcher Ger­shon Dublon and his col­leagues tromped around the pre­serve in chest-high waders to show how the sen­sors can am­plify a hu­man’s ob­ser­va­tion of na­ture.

“The for­est is a lot more ac­tive than you would think, be­cause wildlife is qui­eter when you’re nearby,” Dublon said.

The head­set en­dows its users with a kind of su­per­sen­sory power.

Tap one ear and you can zoom your hear­ing to­ward a nearby pond where ducks are swim­ming.

Gaze in an­other di­rec­tion, tap again and lis­ten in on a se­cluded spot be­neath a canopy of trees.

It’s a chance to hear elu­sive an­i­mals that scurry away long be­fore hu­mans get any­where near them.

You can also travel in time, as MIT Me­dia Lab pro­fes­sor Joseph Par­adiso did last week, trans­port­ing him­self out of the sleepy Novem­ber land­scape by tap­ping into sounds picked up from the same place six months ear­lier.

“We played the spring, and to me, that was a rev­e­la­tion,” he said.

“Hear­ing a dead land­scape come alive as if you’re there.”

Daven­port, right, holds a cell­phone as Par­adiso lis­tens to the sounds of wildlife recorded months ear­lier.

A cell­phone re­ceives livestream video and au­dio data.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Lebanon

© PressReader. All rights reserved.