Bioscientists use a mixed reality headset and custom software to measure vegetation in the field

Ecologists won’t always need expensive and cumbersome equipment to measure vegetation in the wild. Rice University scientists found that a modern head-up display works quite well.

Rice researchers configured aMicrosoft HoloLens as a mixed reality sensor to power VegSense, their app for measuring understory vegetation, the plant life that grows between the canopy and the forest floor.

A proof-of-concept study conducted by graduate student Daniel Gorczynski and bioscientist Lydia Beaudrot shows that VegSense could be a suitable low-cost alternative to traditional conventional field measurements.

Their study in Methods in ecology and evolution shows that the hardware-software combination excels in quantifying relatively mature trees in the wild, which is a measure of the overall health of a forest.

Gorczynski had the idea to try HoloLens, commonly marketed as a productivity tool for manufacturing, healthcare and education. He developed the open-source software for the device and noted that while the suit is less effective at picking up saplings and small branches, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Gorczynski said he was introduced to mixed reality sensing while a student at Vanderbilt University and recognized its potential for biological studies. “It kind of felt like a natural fit,” he said. Gorczynski brought the idea to Beaudrot in 2019 shortly after he joined Rice.

The combination of off-the-shelf hardware and custom software costs significantly less than the lidar-based (for “light detection and ranging”) systems most often used in three-dimensional field studies, said Gorczynski, who developed VegSense on a platform more geared towards 3D and interactive games. experiments that science lasts.

Field trials at Houston Memorial Park have shown that at least for mature trees, the smaller solution is 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, looking up, down, and around to build the base. 3D data. (“Imagine an asterisk surrounded by a circle,” he said, describing the data capture model.)

“For this study, we wanted to be really deliberate in trying to replicate more traditional measurements of understory vegetation structure,” Gorczynski said. “We tried to get that level of detail.”

What it sees when it scans the environment is a hologram-like grid pattern that tracks vegetation surfaces. “What’s really cool is that you can see what the scanner is picking up, but also where you’ve missed,” Gorczynski said. “The idea is to make the mesh cover as much vegetation as possible, because that’s what gives you the best scan.”

“The results were so good that Dan quickly wrote it up for publication,” Beaudrot said, noting that Gorczynski expanded his validation of the craft during a subsequent field trip to Tanzania, the center of one of the 15 rainforests in a recent rainforest study by the Rice Group.

“This device can facilitate a lot of great ecological research, especially because it’s so cost-effective,” she said. “Collecting vegetation information on the forest floor is currently very difficult to do without a lot of manual labor or a very expensive lidar system.”

“So it’s a revolutionary and cost-effective device,” said Beaudrot. “It won’t give you the same resolution data as lidar, but it’s only the first application. We hope that making VegSense open source for the ecological research community will stimulate all potential ways to develop it. .”

Northrop Grumman, Conservation International and Rice supported the research.


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Material provided by rice university. Original written by Mike Williams. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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