Immersive and annotated study tour videos filmed using a full-hemispherical camera
Faculty in Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation (FREC), research scientists and project associates in Virginia Tech’s Conservation Management Institute (CMI), and faculty partners in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Kentucky led the fourth and final module of the National Advanced Silviculture Program (NASP) for federal agency foresters. NASP participants come from across the country and are employed by the US Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Land Management. The annual funded module ($290,000 to date at Virginia Tech) is a two-week intensive that includes lectures, laboratory exercises, mini-workshops, field-based exercises, field tours, and preparatory and capstone silviculture prescription assignments. Its focus is applied and the program is designed to synthesize what participants learned in modules one through three. Graduates ultimately are qualified to direct silvicultural operations on public lands.
NASP is historically an in-person event, but project directors Drs. John Munsell and David Carter were forced to pivot to online training in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Munsell stated, “Dr. Carter and I faced a difficult situation. How do we host a two-week capstone module for a national silviculture program without going into the forest or even being in the same time zone? Fortunately, Virginia Tech has expertise in visual computing and we reached out to Dr. Nicholas Polys for help.” To enhance learning in a remote setting, Munsell and Carter worked with Polys, who is Director of Visual Computing at Virginia Tech, to develop immersive training exercises and video study tours using augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) delivery technologies. “We needed to bring the forest to the participants and keep them excited and engaged in an online meeting space, which isn’t easy for an afternoon, let alone two weeks,” said Carter. “By using these novel technologies to develop curriculum, we were able to assign applied web-based exercises that enhanced participant experience and learning by immersing them in the forest. It also helped work around time zone differences.”
The training included full-hemispherical immersive video study tours filmed with expert silviculturists from across the country. AR/VR plots were established in forest stands ranging from loblolly pine forests in Virginia’s Piedmont to the northern conifer and hardwood forests of Maine and Wisconsin. Multiple AR/VR plots in exercise stands included dropdown tree data, full-hemispherical imagery with digital stem annotation, environmental condition maps and associated data, and vertical drone flight data with digital stem annotation at various vertical heights rising to the canopy. One participant noted, “Although it isn't the same as in person, the VR/AR made it feel as realistic as possible given constraints.” Polys, Munsell, Ben Addlestone (Project Associate in FREC), and others recently published a paper pertaining to uses of emerging technology to create virtual field trips for remote learning.
NASP was scheduled to be held in person at Virginia Tech in 2022, but lingering travel restrictions forced a decision to go online only a few months before the program was due to occur. AR/VR content and curriculum were available at a moment’s notice, demonstrating the long-term value of the materials developed for the 2021 module. NASP will return to Virginia Tech in 2023 and is currently scheduled to be in person. If so, the AR/VR program will not be shelved, but will be repurposed to “prime” participants so they are better prepared before heading out underneath the canopy.