Live-stream­ing a marsh­land for fun — and for science

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - 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 pre­serve.

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 miles from where the Pil­grims landed in 1620.

Re­motely spy­ing on na­ture isn’t new, but the project goes far 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,” Ms. 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 well­crafted smart­phone app or a vir­tual re­al­ity game?

If it works here, Ms. 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 480-acre sanc­tu­ary and took some time be­fore it agreed to out­fit it with live-stream­ing cam­eras and mi­cro­phones. It was as­sured that hu­man voices would be scram­bled.

Ed­u­ca­tors also have asked Ms. 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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A re­search as­sis­tant at the MIT Me­dia Lab Re­spon­sive En­vi­ron­ment group holds his cell­phone re­ceiv­ing live stream data at a marsh­land in Ply­mouth, Mas­sachusetts, which is equipped with wire­less sen­sors and cam­eras to cre­ate a vir­tual re­al­ity.

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