SUNY ESF Professor's virtual forest could inspire future stewards
Exploring a forest through virtual reality could be the latest way to inspire interest and action to protecting the health of the real thing. SUNY ESF Landscape Architecture professor Aidan Ackerman built the digital trees, water, and rocks. He says the virtual forest happened almost organically.
“I didn't really set out to do this," Ackerman said. "I did lots of other visualization, but I will say with COVID, I got a headset right when we locked down, and that sort of that really made it a viable thing to do because we were living in the virtual space.”
I decided to put on the headset and take a stroll. It can be a little disorienting for those like myself who have had limited experience with virtual reality or gaming. Instead of using my body to navigate the forest, Ackerman designed the program to work with two hand-held controllers. During my walk, I encounter a small bridge over a brook, moss-covered rocks, a pond, all in vivid detail.
Ackerman says it's intended to make someone feel completely immersed.
“It's a fully 360 [degree] experience. It's got the ground with materials, fallen leaves, soil, water, hundreds of trees surrounding you," Ackerman said. "It's all captured from nature, real trees, that have been turned digital. There are leaves are blowing in the wind. You can see the sun coming through the canopy.”
Ackerman says the virtual experience is probably most effective with those developing an appreciation for the importance of forests.
“We may not be showing these to people who have a direct role in changing how forests are managed, but maybe the next generation of foresters, young people, people who care about the urban forests," Ackerman said. "That's also a piece of the puzzle, who may be ultimately the people who are the voice and the steward of advancing urban forests and forests altogether.”
Ackerman credits several other ESF faculty for helping him learn how his virtual forest can be used to advance and achieve those larger goals.
Ackerman will give a lecture Thursday at 7:00 at SUNY ESF’s Gateway Center, where attendees can experience the virtual forest.
The SUNY ESF foundation is a supporter of WAER. It had no bearing on the decision to produce this story.