If a tree falls in the Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary, it doesn’t matter if no one’s around. You can hear it anyway. That’s because researchers have hidden dozens of wireless sensors, microphones, and cameras amid the foliage of this Plymouth, Massachusetts, nature preserve.
Sounds picked up from the marsh and woodland are fed into an artificial intelligence system. It can identify frogs or crickets, ducks or a passing airplane. Why record this diverse natural cacophony? Scientists hope to better understand undisturbed animal habitats so they can improve wildlife restoration techniques. It's also a chance to hear elusive animals that scurry away before humans get anywhere near them.
"The forest is a lot more active than you would think, because wildlife is quieter when you're nearby," says Gershon Dublon, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
But beyond that, researchers plan to use the data to power an online virtual reality world. They want to create an alternate universe. It will be modeled on the live conditions of the marsh that God created. But they will populate theirs with fanciful creatures invented in a computer lab.
Could this be the nature walk of the future?
The research team at MIT has been trying it out. The team calls the project the Living Observatory. In addition to supporting wildlife efforts, the mission is to offer people of all ages a deeper understanding of nature using laptops, phones, or headsets. Participants can walk the nature trail in person gleaning information through a phone app or headset as they go. Or they can tour remotely from devices at home or in the classroom.
The headset lets users zoom in on sounds as if with a superpower. Tap one ear and your hearing focuses on ducks flapping, paddling, and quacking in a nearby pond. Turn a bit and your hearing amplifies twittering birds under a tree canopy.
But don’t people enjoy nature because it frees them from technology? Glorianna Davenport cofounded the MIT Media Lab. She agrees that “It’s gorgeous to walk in the woods and not be fiddling with a cell phone.” But on the other hand, she adds, you can learn so much more—about the microbial environment or an endangered species—by accessing a virtual reality option at the same time.
If it works in the Tidmarsh, Davenport says researchers will add more ambitious projects. She imagines a virtual Amazon rainforest tour—or even a walk on the Moon.
Skeptics worry about the intrusion of technology and surveillance into the world’s last places without it. Educators ask Davenport why she wouldn’t encourage kids to experience nature—naturally. It seems Davenport has accepted that technology is everywhere to stay. “That’s how they learn,” she says of today’s students. “That is their mechanism of interacting.”