We know that all communication media are not created equal. Graphs and tables are powerful tools for conveying certain types of information among professionals, but will never capture the full complexity of a forest system. A well written narrative or essay can capture the heart and stir the imagination, but our attention spans are becoming ever shorter and we are gathering information in smaller, graphically presented bites. Foresters, along with everyone else, must learn to use the new tools of communication that are now available.
One tool that is finally getting off the ground is virtual reality (VR). This puts panoramic or spherical imagery in three dimensions, so the viewer feels fully immersed in the scene being presented. Game developers presenting computer generated imagery (CGI) are at the forefront, but even the average Jane or Joe can get in the act thanks to our friends at Google. With just a smartphone, a free app (either Android or iOS), and a $15 viewer, anyone can produce and share VR content. This is a rapidly evolving area of development for the company, so the shelf life for the details to follow may be short. Still, the technology has come far enough to warrant some experimentation and it is probably wise to jump on rather than be flattened by this oncoming train.
The most accessible region of Google's VR ecosystem is known as Cardboard. I became aware of it when a precut piece of cardboard with two plastic lenses inserted showed up in my Sunday New York Times. I followed the directions to fold the cardboard into a stereo viewer and then used my phone to access a website with links to VR content, some CGI and some based on photography or video. The phone was placed in the viewer to explore the VR, complete with sound played through the phone's speaker. An entertaining novelty to be sure, one could also see the potential for a more substantive use of the medium.
The Google Cardboard app allows users to capture and share their own 3-D panoramas. Basically, the user launches the app, selects Cardboard Camera, and then rotates in place to capture the image. The software on the phone then processes the image and places it in a gallery accessible within the app. After selecting one of the images from the gallery it displays with a small icon of the Cardboard viewer. Touch the icon and the image converts to stereo mode. Place the phone in the viewer and the VR experience awaits. Images are sharable from within the app, but may be handled quite differently depending on the mode and target of delivery. Incorporating an image into a webpage takes some additional processing that will be described below.
While Cardboard Camera can certainly take vacation photos to a new level, it also seemed like a excellent mechanism to capture and convey the sights and sounds of the forest. It's easy to imagine students peering into the viewer to learn about the redwoods or the rainforest. But could it also provide a valuable tool for resource professionals? In my own specialty of natural community restoration, I envisioned managers being able to visually compare their sites to reference communities documented in VR. It would not be a substitute for quantitative measures, but a way to convey details about a site that text and numbers cannot.
To test this vision, I took my Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone to the woods, first holding it by hand at near arm's length and rotating in place. As might be expected, the finished image, while perfectly readable, had waves where the stitching software could not compensate for my erratic movement. To correct this, I bought an inexpensive ($15) phone mount and placed it on my Promaster XC525 tripod. It worked, but I wondered whether rotating the phone on top of the center point would affect the stereo image. Subsequent trials confirmed that the 3-D effect depends on rotating the phone at some distance from the center point.
There may be more elegant solutions, but I chose the forester's path by creating an arm for my tripod using a three foot piece of 1x1" poplar. I drilled a 1/4" hole through it about one inch from the end. A 1 1/2" inch long 1/4" stainless steel bolt was run through the hole near the end of the stick. To this bolt I attached a small ball head from a TrekPod and then attached the phone mount. The ball head is necessary because the phone mount holds the phone horizontally while the Cardboard Camera requires the phone to be held vertically for image capture. Another hole was drilled 25 inches from the first. I ran the second bolt through a quick release plate for my tripod before inserting it through the hole and securing it with a wing nut. I then attached the assembly to the tripod using the quick release plate and finally set the phone in the mount at the end of the arm. Enough of the poplar stick extended behind the tripod to provide a handle that aided in rotating the phone during shooting.
From my relatively brief experience, there are a few of shooting tips to pass along:
- Carefully consider sky conditions before venturing out. When full sun would produce too much contrast, an overcast sky may help even out an exposure. Some of the worst results seem to come when shooting toward backlit clouds.
- The Cardboard Camera app has an exposure lock setting that is supposed to minimize banding in the image. However, disabling the exposure lock allows the camera to adjust as it is turned toward or away from the sun.
- Typically, photographers are told to avoid the flat light of midday, but for VR panoramas, the sun must be high enough to be out of the field of view. Otherwise, the flare will wash out sections of the image.
As mentioned, there are a variety of ways to share VR images. Social media are immediate and built for mobile technology, but posting them on a website provides a stable platform that is accessible to everyone and searchable. This ties back to the idea of having a visual catalog of reference sites for natural communities. The Florida Natural Areas Inventory has begun such a catalog and VR images would be a valuable addition. It's easy to envision a number of similar applications.
The images from the Cardboard Camera are saved in a vr.jpeg format. Normal image editing software seems to remove the file information that enables the VR. Therefore, the image files must be copied and saved without alteration. Conversely, these images will be displayed as a flat image by standard web browsers unless they are processed before posting. Google provides a drag-and-drop image conversion utility to produce a stereo-capable panorama for the web. The converter works in Chrome, but not Safari. (I have not tested other browsers.)
My experimentation with the technology is still in its early days. A simple application of VR can be found on my website. One can view the panoramas on a desktop computer in full screen mode and navigate them with a mouse. From a phone with Google Cardboard installed, one can launch the stereo image ready for 3-D viewing.
I'm certain that VR will become easier to produce and more integrated into all forms of media. The trick will be to capture and present engaging images that will increase our understanding of and appreciation for our forests.