Virtual reality and it’s use in local forests
Increasingly, we are being able to walk through the forest without leaving the office. Researchers from Australia and New Zealand are concluding a project linking forest inventory, data processing and Virtual Reality (VR). We talked with Dr. Winyu Chinthammit, leading research scientist at the Human Interface Technology Laboratory at the University of Tasmania in Australia. He believes that over the next few years the technology will be completely dominated and may change the concept with which we manage forestry operations.
What are the great advances in the use of Virtual Reality (VR)? How can they be effectively applied in the forest?
Virtual Reality (VR) is a 3D human computer interface technology that enables users to be immersed in a computer generated virtual environment. VR has made possible applications, such as Telepresence, where users can perform tasks from remote locations.
In forestry, there are a number of essential tasks that currently are performed manually in timber plantations and native forests, such as tree and plot measurements for inventory assessments. The VR technology offers a unique opportunity to fundamentally change forest operation practices for which human perceptual skills are required.
In which areas would these be?
We are currently investigating the potential of immersive VR environment in forest inventory, in particular an operation aiming to obtain both tree size measurements and stem quality assessments, such as branching and sweep required for accurate yield estimates. We call this operation “cruising”.
The inventory plots are acquired/scanned with terrestrial or airborne platforms with photogrammetric or LiDAR technologies. The results are a set of dense point cloud data, which can be viewed with visualization software on a desktop platform. However, users are required to operate through the small field of view of a conventional display screen. This is where VR and its 3D immersive rendering could be very beneficial.
What are the advantages of using VR in the Forestry Sector?
The visualization of 3D spatial data such as structures of trees in a forest in a VR environment has advantages over a conventional desktop/laptop environment. The immersiveness of a VR interface allows users/operators to see the 3D scanning of the trees in a 1:1 scale with the real-world environment, and therefor enables operators to perform the tasks (e.g. assessment) with their natural perceptual ability, very similar to physically being on location.
Could you share with us a successful case?
I and my colleagues Dr. Jon Osborn - Discipline of Geography and Spatial Sciences, University of Tasmania, and Dr. Christine Stone – New South Wales Department of Industry – Lands & Forestry are working on a project that is investigating how VR technology can be used for a remote assessment of individual Pinus radiata trees with dense point clouds.
The project is still in its early stage however; our current VR prototype has already received positive feedback from collaborating industry partners and the funding body, Forest and Wood Products Australia. It should be noted that success to this approach is dependent on the accuracy of the dense point clouds and adequate coverage over the features of interest such as tree stems. This is currently being investigated in another part of our project.
What about using this technology to improve management, to better observe what is happening overall?
I believe VR technologies have the potential to change the current practices in mainstream commercial forestry; however, an advanced interface technology, such as VR requires a comprehensive understanding of the specific tasks that the VR interface is designed into. Therefore, we would need to know precisely each task of the inventory workflow, before we can determine whether VR could make a difference. However, I think one example about how the VR technology can improve is in improving the clarity of communications over 3D spatial data. For example, a 3D note or annotation of a specific point in the 3D dataset can be marked by an operator for another operator to view them in his/her VR environment. This would reduce a potential misunderstanding of the communication. Do you know which countries are more developed in this area?
As far as I am aware, the work of using VR in forest inventory assessments is new and we are one of very few who are investigating these issues. In Australia and New Zealand, we have an annual technology event, ForestTech ( www.foresttech.events), which covers emerging technologies in forest resource management, remote sensing, GIS, mapping, and inventory. There are a number of talks on using VR and Augmented Reality in forestry.
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