Monday, 30 April 2012

Augmented Reality – Bringing Ecosystem Services to life!

Today we present the first in a series of guest blog posts, the first of which comes from Sarah Taigel at the University of East Anglia. 

Traditionally rural landscapes have been managed primarily for agriculture and forestry. However the landscape provides a wealth of other natural benefits (ecosystem services) to human kind, some obvious such as food and fresh water, and some so subtle they do not feature in the public consciousness (National Ecosystem Assessment, 2011). The National Ecosystem Assessment has highlighted growing individual consumerism as one source of pressure on ecosystem services; there is a need to communicate to people the link between personal behaviour and pressures on the ecosystem services in the landscape.

Figure 1. VesAR screenshots
I created an augmented reality applet called VesAR (Visualising ecosystem services using Augmented Reality) (see Figure 1 above) which can be downloaded onto mobile smartphones. The secure applet runs within LayAR which can be downloaded from iTunes or Android marketplace. VesAR uses the smartphones camera, GPS, compass, accelerometer and needs an internet connection (see Figure 2). GPS determines the exact location of the device (within a few meters) and the compass and accelerometer determine the field of view. The person using the device sees the world via the camera image which is displayed on the screen, this is overlaid, or augmented, with additional information (POIs – Points of Interest) in the form of text and images via mobile internet to both locate and describe the ecosystem service. In the summer of 2012 two smartphones and a Galaxy tablet will be used to trial the applet on guided tours of the Gaywood catchment in Norfolk. The survey results will hopefully tell me the degree with which people engage with and understand ecosystem services and how the use of technology can assist in the communication of scientific information.

Figure 2. VesAR architecture
VesAR development has been relatively straightforward after trials of the applet were moved to a nearby floodplain reducing interference from buildings. Installing GPS Test meant that the accuracy of the GPS fix could be verified before initialising the VesAR applet. Continued issues include the GPS draining battery, exacerbated by the screen running at full brightness for outdoor use; alternative charging sources are being tested for use in the field. The Environmental Sciences department at the UEA has been supportive and interested in the use of this technology within my research project; particular interest has been shown in using the BGS iGeology application on fieldwork courses. The hardware will be used on fieldwork and in the curriculum to introduce students to the power of location based information and the ease with which information can be communicated between devices and the lab or desk. 

Sarah Taigel is an ESRC funded PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia, her PhD topic is “visioning catchment futures” and focuses on communicating ecosystem services currently obtained from the catchment landscape. Sarah also uses scenario modelling to explore how the provision of ecosystem services may change in the future.  The views expressed in this blog piece are the authors and not those of the University.