Thursday, December 29, 2016

Bringing the forest to classroom, home, and office

Foresters have long faced the challenge of explaining their work to decision-makers, the public, and even peers who are far removed, physically or culturally, from the woods. Increasing urbanization exacerbates the problem, such that we have now identified, as coined by Richard Louv, "nature deficit disorder". Then how sustainable can our forests be when the population has no direct experience with them or even a frame of reference to understand their benefits and importance? Communication, the great catalyst, can transmit knowledge, facilitate understanding and even spur action, but traditionally, foresters are not good at telling their stories. We need all the help we can get to gain the public's attention and to make our message understood.

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.)

Once posted, the image is accessed using a JavaScript API called VR View. The script can be called on Google's server, but may not always function properly. Therefore it is recommended that users host it on their own server. This is relatively straightforward for those with experience with web hosting, although much of the available scripting quickly exceeded my coding abilities.

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.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The State of American Forests in 1884

Slate blogger Rebecca Onion recently offered a post on the digitization of maps originally produced to display data collected by Charles Sprague Sargent, a botanist and first director of the Arnold Arboretum. The maps were published in 1884 as part of the 580-page Report on Forest Trees of North America (Exclusive of Mexico) for the Census Office of the Department of the Interior.

This report forms an invaluable snapshot for anyone trying to understand changes in the North American forest over the last 130 years. For instance, the last map in the report shows the distribution of redwood along the California coast. It displays both those areas where all merchantable (i.e., commercially viable) quantities of the species had been removed and those areas that still had in excess of 200,000 bd. ft. per acre.

Sargent, who was from the generation that preceded Gifford Pinchot, was not trained as a forester. His influence on the profession, however, has been significant. His comprehensive, two-volume Manual of the Trees of North America first published in 1905 is still a go-to reference on my bookshelf. Taxonomists may change the names and groupings of trees, but the basic characteristics of individual species remain constant over many generations.

The other part of the story is the David Rumsey Map Collection. The collection contains 150,000 maps, 30,000 of which are available online. Publication dates span from 1492 to 2007. There are 16 Sargent maps in the collection.

Rumsey, the president of Cartography Associates, started building the collection after working for 20 years in real estate and finance. In addition to digitizing and making the maps available as images, Rumsey is working on mapping and visualization software.

His Georeferencer allows the production of locationally accurate overlays in 2 or 3-D. I tried this with one of the Sargent maps of North America. Due to large extent of the map and the difference in the projections used, my test was less than successful. This does not diminish the potential of Georeferencer to be a powerful tool for looking at change over time and bringing history to life.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Restored Forests Breathe Life Into Efforts Against Climate Change

It was a nice headline to read two days before Christmas. This New York Times article gave me a little extra holiday cheer. The comments on the article tempered my mood somewhat by, among other things, questioning the author's accounting claiming only that only minimal reductions in global CO2 will be achievable through REDD-type programs. Still, the article was well written and the discussion is important.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ten land buys that changed Florida history

Leading up to the vote on Florida's Water and Land Conservation Amendment on the November 2014 ballot, Kevin Spear of the Orlando Sentinel compiled a list of great public land purchases over the last 30 years. The areas highlighted in this video were all in my top 10. The entire list can be found in the Orlando Sentinel story.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gifford Pinchot, 150 minus 1

Today marks the 149th anniversary of Gifford Pinchot's birth. He was the first head of the U.S. Forest Service and founder of the Society of American Foresters. His impact on natural resource management can hardly be overstated. Here are a few webpages to browse in preparation of his 150th birthday next year:

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A year in the life of That Tree, a photo a day by Mark Hirsch

I hope that most of you have seen A year in the life of That Tree, a photo a day by Mark Hirsch. Although this article is over a year old, I was unaware of this collection of photos until it was mentioned by some friends this week.

Who wouldn't love 365 photos of a bur oak? Many might think the project a little obsessive and the subject matter a little dull. But while I personally love the subject matter, the strength of the collection springs from Mr. Hirsch's creativity and artistic vision. He has a great eye. He puts the primary subject in context and gets us thinking about the tree's relationship to the landscape and all the species in it.

The subject came up during a discussion of whether an iPhone is a "real" camera. Ultimately, that's not the issue. I'm sure there were those who sniped at Picasso and Braque when they started gluing pieces of newspaper on the canvas. It may not have been "real" painting, but it's certainly real art. So are Mr. Hirsch's photos.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Adding the Treaty Oak to my life list

Over the course of my career, I've seen many large trees, some of them champions. Finding the giants of a particular species was never really a specific quest or hobby, but I feel myself be drawn in that direction by the iconic tree of the deep south, the live oak (Quercus virginiana).

Visiting the Angel Oak last fall may have set me on this course. My wife and I enjoyed hunting down the little park where it stands and then strolling beneath its massive crown. We stopped by Florida's champion Cellon Oak, on the same trip, and I took it as a personal triumph when my wife took our grandkids to visit the tree after an outing to pick strawberries at a farm nearby.

So as we drove from Fernandina Beach to St. Augustine on a pleasant Saturday morning, I suggested that we make a slight detour to visit the Treaty Oak in Jacksonville. I knew this tree was easy pickings. It sits in a 2.5 acre park near the St. Johns River, south of downtown in the San Marco area. Our iPhone GPS had the location and took us straight there. Being the weekend, we were able to park near the entrance to the park and have the tree all to ourselves.

With a score of 462 points, the Florida Forest Service considers the Treaty Oak a "Challenger" to the Cellon Oak's 517. It's most impressive feature is the crown spread, just six feet less than the Cellon Oak and with massive branches that dip to the ground in all directions. Walking into the gap in the canopy on the park's boardwalk feels like entering a leafy cathedral.

According to the Wikipedia article, there is no actual treaty associated with the tree. As part of the effort to save the tree in the 1930's, journalist Pat Moran is said to have created the story of native Floridians and settlers signing an accord there. Fortunately, the land was purchased by the Alfred I. duPont Testamentary Trust and finally donated to the City of Jacksonville by Jessie Ball duPont in 1964.

Having visited and photographed three of the six largest (recorded) live oaks in Florida, I feel drawn to find the others. Located in Lake, Madison, and Marion counties, all are within a two hour drive. I've got plenty else to do, but every visit to those grand old trees has seemed like time well spent.