Linfang was convinced her VR camera trap training program could help make studying the elusive ghost of the mountain easier. She pitched her concept to multiple Snow Leopard Trust executives before sending a Quest2 VR headset to Dr. Koustubh Sharma, our Science & Conservation Director, to introduce the idea.
A series of exciting interactions followed between our science team and Linfang’s developer team, including virtual 3D meetings in the metaverse to find the right balance between realism and technological considerations.
Camera traps are used for monitoring and studying wildlife populations in their natural habitats, particularly for hard-to-find species like the snow leopard. The cameras we use are equipped with heat and motion sensors, which are triggered by animals moving close by. Passing snow leopards (and many other animals) end up taking selfies for science. Using camera traps, researchers can remotely capture images and video of snow leopards in their natural habitats, providing insight into their behavior and generating reliable population estimates to help inform conservation efforts.
Linfang and her team of volunteer engineers worked with our science team to build a virtual world using a cross-platform game engine called Unity. This virtual world will be one of the first steps to train team members about the nuances of setting up effective camera traps in the wild using immersive technology. Real cameras require precise placement in the field to ensure they are set at the appropriate locations and the correct angles to capture snow leopards walking past. In the real world, training typically occurs in only a few sites. But in this virtual world, we will be able to “take” people to multiple training sites in various landscapes to practice setting up camera traps in these simulated habitats. The trainees will then be able to watch a virtual time-lapse to see if their camera traps photographed the animals correctly. They will be able to review what worked, what didn’t and try again.
This virtual world includes forested patches, snow-covered mountains, and rocky terrain, offering a realistic training situation. Using a Quest2 VR headset, trainees can immerse themselves in the virtual world and practice setting up the camera traps. This training tool can potentially help improve camera trap setup skills and reduce the chances of equipment damage.
Snow Leopard Trust and volunteers Bowen Zhao, Jiacheng Yu and Linfang Yang are excited to develop and offer this innovative and practical training tool to the conservation community. The ‘world’ is already accessible to the public via a free app called VRChat, under a world named “Snow Leopard Training Environment.” Anyone with a Windows PC or a VR headset can access it. We are grateful to Linfang and her team for their vision and use of immersive technology to help address real-world issues in snow leopard conservation.
“I am thrilled about the new virtual camera trap training app. It can be an incredibly valuable tool that allows trainees to experience multiple trap locations in a matter of minutes and understand the fine differences and nuances of each. This will prepare the trainee to set up cameras efficiently in the real world. A virtual training environment will be able to provide a multitude of experiential training efficiently at low cost.”- Dr. Koustubh Sharma.
You can experience this virtual training world for yourself here using the VR Chat app, which can be installed on a Windows computer or a VR headset.
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A big thank you to Linfang Yang, Bowen Zhao and Jiacheng Yu for taking their innovative idea from a dream to (virtual) reality in less than a year!