Forget You’re Chained to Your Desk and Enter the Forest in Virtual Reality

Enjoy new 360-degree views of the forest every 15 minutes, every day, all year.
October 16, 2016, 2:00pm

When was the last time you took a walk in the woods? If you're anything like me, it was long enough ago that you can't remember. A sad reality of modern urban living and the corporate grind is that many of us are starved of nature in our daily lives, despite the fact that the United States alone contains around 750 million acres of forests.

But now you can simulate escaping to a real forest and basking in the tranquility of the trees, right from your desk. The Virtual Forest is a projected launched earlier this month by Koen Hufkens, an ecologist at Harvard University's Richardson Lab, which broadcasts a live feed of continuously refreshing, 360-degree still images (one every 15 minutes) from a spot deep in the middle of the Harvard Forest, a plot of land in Western Massachusetts that is owned by the university and open to researchers and the public.


The feed is year-round, allowing you to check back in at anytime (well—anytime the sun is up, there is no night vision mode at present) to see what the trees are up to.

Using a desktop web browser, you can click and drag around the feed to see different angles of the woods from a height of about 5 feet (1.5 meters), the height of the consumer-grade Ricoh Theta S 360-degree camera that Hufkens installed on a post out there.

"I hope it can show people how the forest changes throughout the seasons…and the beauty of the forest."

But the real magic comes if you view the Virtual Forest through a recent-model smartphone (iPhone or Android, just one that has a built-in gyroscope) and Google Cardboard, the company's cheap, smartphone-powered VR headset design. Then you can actually feel like you're standing right there in the forest, which is one of Hufkens' goals with the project.

"I hope it can show people how the forest changes throughout the seasons…and the beauty of the forest," Hufkens told Motherboard over the phone. "For people who are geographically isolated from the forest, I hope it provides a way for [them] to experience it up close and personal, compared to a standard photo."

As a kind of demo reel, Hufkens created a timelapse of 360-degree imagery captured over just one day in Harvard Forest and uploaded it to YouTube.

In fact, for those who are looking for an even more immersive experience, the Virtual Forest is also supported by the more premium VR headsets including the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (through the open source VR coding framework A-Frame).

Hufkens said he got the idea to create the Virtual Forest when consumer 360-degree cameras first started becoming available in the past couple years. He started conceiving the project in earnest this summer, and began assembly of his camera station in September.

The Virtual Forest 360-degree camera setup created by Koen Hufkens. Image: Koen Hufkens

Besides the Ricoh Theta S camera, which provides the imagery, the rest of the setup is also almost entirely built from commercially available components and supplies, including: a Raspberry Pi microcomputer that serves as the camera's controller, a wooden post, PVC plumbing pipe, pieces of silicone cut to form a holster, a "lampshade"-like glass enclosure to protect the camera lens from the elements and insects, a standard USB cable, a power-over-ethernet cable for power and internet connectivity, and a grounding cable to protect against electrical fluctuations caused by potential nearby lightning strikes.

In total, Hufkens estimates the Virtual Forest setup cost around $500, and he said he plans to make the plans open source on the maker website Hackaday at some point in the near future, which would allow anyone to build one of these in their own backyards. He's also planning an improved, higher-resolution camera setup using one of the new Nikon KeyMission 360 cameras, which shoot in 4K resolution.

Aside from being a "fun" side project for Hufkens, he said it also may help his research, which is concentrated on phenology, which, in Hufken's words, amounts to "the feedback between the climate and the biosphere, and consequently, climate change."

"Putting a camera in the understory, it summarizes the whole forest in a single image, which is kind of neat," Hufkens said.

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