There’s no substitute for seeing a forest with one’s own eyes, but can Virtual Reality provide a similar learning experience? Penn State University and the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station recently created a Virtual Reality field tour to help audiences visualize what different types of thinning and prescribed fire treatments look like in an immersive way. The ~21-minute tour uses ultra-high resolution 360-degree imagery shot from ground level to above the tree canopy and visits 12 locations in the ‘Variable Density Thinning’ study on the Stanislaus-Tuolumne Experimental Forest (Stanislaus National Forest, CA). Different thinning strategies are shown, including a ‘High Variability’ treatment designed to produce more of a group and gap structure – the type that was once common in mid-elevation mixed conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada shaped by frequent fire. This is compared with a standard relatively even crown spacing thinning and an unthinned control, all with or without the addition of prescribed fire. The tour app, built using tools for developing computer games, allows users explore each location with their computer mouse while the audio describes the scene.
Before full release, this tour is now being tested. Users are encouraged to fill out an optional short (less than 10 minute) questionnaire. The survey will help the developers evaluate potential usefulness of such technology for conveying concepts about forest structure, thinning, and prescribed fire. Responses from forest managers, fire managers, or policy makers are especially vital and currently underrepresented, but feedback from all audiences useful and welcome.