Oculus Rift and Acoustic Ecology at Under Western Skies

During the Under Western Skies conference, I attended a presentation by Dr. Garth Paine, interim director and associated professor at the School of Arts Media and Engineering at Arizona State University.

UWS logo

He works on acoustic ecology projects – using Oculus Rift technology to provide visual and auditory ecological experiences to those who can’t make it into the wilderness. This particular project is called the “Listen” project.

“The Listen project will offer creative answers to these questions by utilising innovative surround sound recording techniques, multimodal sensing and data fusion and new Internet streaming technologies that will allow individuals to undertake virtual, immersive sound walks through the remote wilderness of the Southwest deserts of the USA from anywhere in the world.”

An example of the Oculus Rift vision goggles I was using.

I tried it. Unfortunately, I could not wear my glasses while wearing the view finder, so my visual experience was hindered. However, this made the audio even better and more important. When I was wearing the Oculus Rift view finder and the headphones, I could move my head all around and experience different sounds when looking at different areas in the simulation.

For example, when I looked down where my feet should be, sound was muffled. In the grasses, I heard insects. When looking at the river, I heard the water flowing. While looking at the sky, I could hear the wind.

Paine took me through three different landscapes in Arizona throughout his demonstration. He focuses on UNESCO Biosphere Reserves:

“They differ from world heritage sites in that they encourage active community participation and are ideal locations to test and demonstrate innovative approaches to sustainability. The Man and Biosphere program was initiated by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in the 1970s as a practical tool to deal with some of the most important challenges of our time: “how can we reconcile conservation of biodiversity and biological resources with their sustainable use”.”

He and his team, including Dr. Sabine Feisst whom I also met at the conference, has also worked with the National Parks Service, creating visualizations for Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, the Mojave National Preserve and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. 

With these visualizations, all you need is your computer and some headphones. Check out the Joshua Tree NP experiment here! (Since I love Joshua Tree so much):

Screenshot from the Joshua Tree visualization
Screenshot from the Joshua Tree visualization

Paine hopes that he will be able to make further connections with Google, as Google uses street view for tours of parks. However, Google does not have the audio component yet.

I’m probably not the only one who has never heard of acoustic ecology. According to Wikipedia, it is “is a discipline studying the relationship, mediated through sound, between living beings and their environment.”

Next time you want an outdoor experience form your computer, check out this project!

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