August 7, 2009

Exhibit Gives Humans Extreme Senses Of Animals

An "immersive" virtual reality exhibit is letting people experience some of the farthest ranges of the senses that many animals have.

Visitors to the exhibit see first hand what it might be like to have a bird's ultraviolet vision or to experience a whale's ultra-low frequency hearing.

Scientists say the exhibit, on display at the annual Siggraph conference in New Orleans from August 3 to 7, seeks to give the public an opportunity to experience all the sensing ranges that animals have.

Humans' ability to see and hear is just a small fraction of that of animals.  Indeed, many creatures are able to make and perceive sounds at higher and lower frequency ranges than we can.  A dog's perception of ultrasound is one familiar example.

Many animal species are able to perceive light at extreme frequency ranges. Birds, for example, can see ultraviolet light and their feathers are often highly reflective in this frequency range.  Meanwhile, rattlesnakes and other predators are sensitive to infrared light and can "see" the heat emitted by their prey.

Carol LaFayette of Texas A&M University's visualization department and her team wanted to create a way to let humans experience those senses.

"If you were walking through the woods and you had the ability to see in ultraviolet, for instance, things like birds or fungi might stand out in very colorful ways," she said during an interview with BBC News.

"These species aren't very exotic, they're all over the place," she said.

"There is a wealth of information out there in scientific research that is difficult to access and present. Our project makes these fascinating stories accessible to a wider range of people."

LaFayette and her team consulted a variety of researchers, and assembled a candidate list of species.  They also gathered some infra- and ultrasound recordings of animals in the wild.

The exhibit's system consists of five large projection screens displayed in a semicircle to create a virtual reality scene based in part on Cocos Island, west of Costa Rica. 

Visitors to the exhibit can roam the island's forests or swim in its tropical waters using a modified Nintendo Wii game controller to assist in navigation and switch between the ranges of sounds or sights.

Visualization expert Fred Parke designed the system to correct for perspective as users navigate the space. For instance, an ultraviolet setting creates a view rich with conventional color and reflections not seen by the unassisted human eye. 

The program also allows visitors to hear the infrasound vocalizations of whales, or the ultrasound clicks  made by tiger moths.

With the inclusion of surround-sound capabilities, the system creates a sense of total environmental immersion, the researchers said.

Although the sounds can be easily scaled to a frequency band that humans can hear, "seeing" in ultraviolet is not so easy since humans are incapable of "translating" what these ultraviolet images look like to animals.  To get around this limitation the system randomly assigns colors to different wavelengths.

The scientists are working to incorporate infrared vision into the exhibit, and are looking at how to include sensory modes that humans don't have - such as a shark's ability to sense electric fields.

"There are things that we can scale, that we can understand because they are things that we can see or hear - then there are things we don't even know how they can be sensed. That's a really fascinating area," LaFayette said.

The researchers hope the idea will grow, and envision the potential for a "live feed" of audio and video from all corners of the globe. 

Subscriptions to a real-time virtual experience could fund the purchase of land for wildlife, they added.

"The immersive system ties interest in the environment to knowledge gained through scientific research," LaFayette said. "We hope this will generate greater interest in what's out there in one's own back yard."


Image Credit: Texas A&M University


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