How Augmented Reality (AR) could help Ecologists in the Future

How Augmented Reality (AR) could help Ecologists in the Future

As the human population of planet earth continues to grow, we impact our environment more and more. Greater volumes of waste, higher demand for food and water, and increasing population pressures are just some of the concerns for people of the future, and there is a growing pressure on ecologists to investigate the impact of these issues on nature and find solutions.

Ecology is a branch of biology that primarily studies the relationships between biological organisms and the environments in which they live. Particular topics of study include organism populations, biodiversity and how different species compete in the same environment. Ecology has a place in a wealth of different applications such as city planning, agriculture and social interaction between humans.

What is AR?

AR is short for Augmented Reality. Not to be confused with Virtual Reality (VR), AR differs in that it still utilises the real world. AR overlays a digital image or animation onto your view of the real world, unlike VR which is a completely computer-generated environment. 

An example of AR is shown in the image below. In this case, pieces of furniture are overlaid in a room, providing a simulation of what the furniture would look like in real life.

Augmented reality example
Image by OyundariZorigtbaatar licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

A recent widespread application of AR is the mobile game Pokémon GO, released in 2016. The game has a function that allows the user to play an encounter with an in-game creature by superimposing it onto their mobile device’s camera feed, as opposed to the in-game background graphics.

How can Ecologists use AR?

The use of AR in certain environments could offer a new way to imagine the real world. For example, instead of trying to visualise how a new plant species might integrate into an ecosystem, ecologists could currently use AR to see it on the video feed of a camera. Think of a Heads-Up Display (HUD) present in many sci-fi games and films. Used in conjunction with real-time recording devices, AR devices could be used to give a stream of constantly updating information about the conditions of the environment and the organisms within it, directly to hand-held, or visor-like equipment.

This creates a tangible way for hypothetical concepts to be studied and envisioned by ecologists, and has amazing implications for the future of AR as technologies continue to grow and develop. More sophisticated programs could soon be used to simulate entire ecosystems and envision how acres of land might once have looked – or how they could look in the future.

What might this mean for the Future?

Some of the biggest challenges for mankind revolve around the environment and the health of the planet. A recent estimate of humanity’s collective plastic waste since 1950 has landed in the area of 8.3 billion metric tonnes, and UN estimates claim that the human population of our planet could reach 9.7 billion people by the year 2050.

With solutions needed for looming problems such as food consumption, living space and non-degradable waste production, ecologists need big volumes of data in order to understand and map the progresses of ecosystems and habitats on all kinds of scales.

They also need to educate the public and the next generation of the challenges that we face and how we can contribute towards the solutions. To this end, an AR game has been developed by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. It’s called EcoMOBILE.

The EcoMUVE curriculum and its evolution to AR

The project began with EcoMUVE. Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at the school, developed it with his team and with help from the National Science Foundation and Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach initiative.

EcoMUVE is a two to four-week curriculum, based within a virtual ecosystem that students access and explore through their computer. They are introduced to a pond wherein all the fish have died, and they are tasked with investigating the causal relationships and establish what has happened.

The outcome that Dede and his team aimed for was to immerse learners in the world of ecology scientists. They found that student engagement was greatly aided by the immersion-boosting virtual environment, which led them to a question: Why not take students to a real-world environment, but use the virtual immersion to strengthen and enhance their experience?

This idea fueled their follow-up project, EcoMOBILE, which enhances real-world field trips with interactive elements that allow students to help ecological research. The project’s website summarises its mission as: ‘EcoMOBILE explores the unique affordances of augmented reality, as well as the capabilities of data collection probeware, to support setting-enhanced learning in environmental science education. Two forms of technology for science education enhance student experience in the real world: probes and mobile broadband devices.’

Probes placed in and around the ecosystem gather the kind of data that scientists would really use, such as pH balance of water, temperature and oxygen concentration. Using EcoMOBILE, students can gather this information, aiding ecological research alongside learning about the kinds of factors that real scientists need to monitor and watch.

The EcoMUVE curriculum and its evolution to AR

Dede’s next research goal is to use technology such as Go-Pro cameras and sensors to allow students to map critical ecosystems and biomes. He describes this kind of data harvesting as ‘citizen science’, allowing learners and regular people to play a part in the research and support of environmental sciences.

With more developed AR featuring elements to grab immersion and interest, such as gamification and educational reward, applications such as EcoMOBILE could be the future of conservation efforts and ecological study.

About the Author: Dom Gibson

Dom Gibson is the educational content editor at Tutorful, the UK’s largest tutoring marketplace, covering 300+ subjects including Biology and Ecology. He works with expert educators to find the most innovative approaches to teaching and shares his findings with high quality education and science blogs across the web. You can find links to the Tutorful blog, website and social media here.

Edited by: Hugh

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