Virtual reality (VR) is no longer a thing of the future and is already revolutionizing industries such as gaming, travel and real estate. But what about the forest sector? Could VR transform this sector as well? A group of researchers from Finland claim that a “virtual bioeconomy” is the next big thing for the otherwise “traditional” sector, which will change the way we manage and interact with our forests.
During my three week stay at the department of forest sciences in Helsinki, I met a young postdoctoral researcher by the name of Jani Holopainen. Jani is part of a research group named VRForest that is dealing, among others, with mixed reality-user experiences, in short MIReuX. This all sounds quite high-tech so how does this work?
Jani explained that in a world of changing demographics and rapid technological development, the way we interact with our forests is also bound to change. For example, small forest owners who own, say a couple of hectares of forest in Northern Finland, but reside in Helsinki, are quite unlikely to visit their forest very often, let alone make informed decisions about forest management. Sure, they’ll get expert advice from a professional about profits and harvests, but their level of engagement in other issues such as ecosystem services or landscape planning will probably remain quite low.
VR technologies are expected to fill that gap, and provide novel ways for customer engagement in forest planning and advisory services. Besides these, the VRForest group are currently developing applications for a range of other services such as: digital timber trade and landscape planning, where both VR and augmented reality (AR) tech are being used as novel communication and engagement tools. Jani seemed certain that such technologies would revolutionize customer experience, as well as provide viable tools for education and training.
I’ve had the chance to try it out myself. Equipped with a set of VR glasses, head phones and two joysticks I was immediately immersed in my very own digital forest. Here, I could play forest manager and take decisions about planning. Naturally, I proceeded with clearing all trees relentlessly. Armed with a virtual chainsaw ,that looked more like a lightsaber form Star Wars, I was joyfully cutting away, especially since every tree cut was earning me around 300-400 €/ trunk. Thus, I greedily continued to enrich my virtual pockets. It all came to a halt when I was greeted by a bear that snuck up behind me and gave me a serious fright. With the initial shock passed, I began thinking that I was ruining that bear’s habitat. As I was cutting away, some mountain tops around my forest began to show. It was a beautiful sight, but it made me think about those barren mountains and the fact that I had cleared away the only barrier protecting me from avalanches and landslides. Clearly, I hadn’t been a wise forest manager. I wished I could’ve gone back in time and “uncut” all those trees but guess what…the application allowed me to go back, repair my mistakes and gave me another shot at making wiser management decisions.
Although the interface is still a prototype, I could already see its massive potential for customer experience and engagement .For once, I had the liberty to take decisions about managing a forest and see the consequences in real-time without actually damaging any trees or getting my hands dirty. Jani explained that in the future, forest owners could have exact virtual replicas of their forest. Geospatial data and remote sensing of forest structure (LiDAR data) could provide the application with enough information to provide a pretty exact digital replica of a forest. In such a VR forest, one could experiment with different management options and landscape planning as well as ponder about other ecosystem services.
So perhaps it is time to see VR and AR technologies as potential game-changing innovations in the bioeconomy. These technologies could not only change the way we manage and interact with our forests but also pave the way towards a radically different and inclusive approach to forest management. After all, technological innovation is a central theme in most bioeconomy strategies. So perhaps we should discuss more about a potential “virtual bioeconomy”. This might be worth considering. As Jani puts it, this technology will “change the way we communicate in the same way that the internet and smart phones have done in the past”.