Ecologists don’t always need expensive and bulky equipment to measure vegetation in the wild. Scientists at Rice University found that modern head-up displays work well.
Rice researchers set up Microsoft HoloLens as a mixed reality sensor to feed VegSense with data, and their app can measure understory vegetation, the plant life that grows between the forest canopy and the ground.
Proof-of-concept studies by graduate student Daniel Gorczynski and bioscientist Lydia Beaudrot suggest that VegSense may be a suitable alternative to traditional classical field measurements at low cost.
their learning Ecological and Evolutionary Approaches Showing that the hardware-software combination is good at quantifying relatively mature trees in the wild, which is a way of measuring the overall health of the forest.
Gorczynski came up with the idea to try HoloLens, which is often marketed as a productivity tool in manufacturing, healthcare and education. He developed open-source software for the device, noting that while the combination is less effective at picking up saplings and twigs, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Gorczynski said he was exposed to mixed reality sensing as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University and recognized its potential in biological research. “It seemed like a match made in heaven,” he said. In 2019, Gorczynski brought the idea to Beaudrot shortly after arriving at Rice.
The combined cost of stock hardware and custom software is much lower than a lidar-based system (used for “light detection and ranging”), which is most commonly used in 3D field research, Gorczynski said, adding that he’s working on a better fit for 3D gaming and interaction. VegSense is developed on the platform. Experience trumps hard science.
Field tests at Houston Memorial Park show that, at least for mature trees, smaller solutions are just as good. In their case study, VegSense easily detected 48 of 50 such trees in the target area, a circle about 30 feet in diameter that Gorczynski walked, looked up and down to build a 3D database. (“Imagine an asterisk with a circle around it,” he said, describing the data capture pattern.)
“In this study, we hope to make a serious attempt to replicate more traditional measurements of understory vegetation structure,” Gorczynski said. “We’re trying to get that level of detail.”
When he scans the environment, he sees a hologram-like grid pattern that tracks the surface of vegetation. “What’s really cool is that you can see what the scanner is picking up, and you can see the points you missed,” Gorczynski said. “The idea is to have the grid cover as much vegetation as possible, because that’s how you get the best scan results.”
“The results were so good that Dan was quick to write it down for publication,” Beaudrot said, noting that Gorczynski expanded his validation of the equipment on a subsequent field trip to Tanzania, the country that was the subject of a recent study of 15 tropical rainforests. One of the focal points of the forest. Rice Group.
“This device could facilitate a lot of great ecological research, especially because it’s cost-effective,” she said. “It is now difficult to collect vegetation information on the forest floor without a lot of manual labor or very expensive lidar systems.”
“So this is a groundbreaking, cost-effective device,” Beaudrot said. “It won’t give you the same resolution data as lidar, but this is just the first application. We hope that opening up VegSense to the ecological research community will inspire all the potential ways it can be developed.”
Northrop Grumman, Conservation International and Rice supported the research.