Live-streaming a marshland for fun — and for science
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.
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.