Cetaceans in captivity: an SFU researcher may have a solution
Should cetaceans--ocean-dwelling mammals such as whales and dolphins--be kept at the Vancouver Aquarium? That question was on a lot of minds last week as the Vancouver Park Board debated--and defeated--a motion to hold a city-wide referendum next year on whether to phase out cetaceans in captivity in Vancouver parks (effectively, the aquarium which is located in Stanley Park).
It's a controversial issue, with some people arguing that since cetaceans are intelligent mammals, it is akin to slavery to put them on exhibit, while others say that having the whales and dolphins at the Aquarium has educational, research and environmental awareness value. The five whales and three dolphins also draw the largest crowds to the aquarium, and thus contribute to the facility’s bottom line.
Steve DiPaola, an associate professor of interactive arts and technology professor at Simon Fraser University, thinks that technology may provide a solution to the dilemma. He suggests displaying virtual belugas and dolphins instead of real ones. Although DiPaola concedes the technology isn't advanced enough yet to replace the cetaceans with computer-generated ones, he believes it's only a matter of time before virtual animals can replace real ones in zoos and aquaria around the world.
Steve DiPaola and graduate student Caitlink Akai, with a pod of virtual belugas.
DiPaola has been involved with interactive 3D animation since 1984. He has taught at Stanford University and worked at Electronic Arts (where he worked on the Sims series of games among other projects), and has consulted for other companies. An artist, he's also experimented with computer-generated paintings based on Rembrandt portraits and a portrait of Charles Darwin. I've talked about one of his other projects--using videogame technology to help autistic children communicate--in a previous Megabytes column. You can find out more about his many research interests at www.dipaola.org.
For the past few years DiPaola has been working with the Vancouver Aquarium on a project to create a virtual beluga whale exhibit.
“The aquarium currently have a number of live belugas as their main attraction and wanted to supplement this with a simulation of a virtual wild beluga pod,” he says. The virtual belugas would be used to show visitors how the whales behave in the wild, something not possible with the captive belugas. Visitors could interact with the exhibit and experiment with "what-if" scenarios, such as introducing a new, aggressive beluga into the virtual pod to see how the other whales react.
The virtual beluga project is temporarily on hold, he says, but he thinks it could lay the groundwork for one day replacing live animals in captivity with virtual animals, whether belugas or tigers or other creatures. "Animals and fish don't always do the most interesting things while you're there watching," he points out. "With virtual simulation you can show the interesting things they do and interact with them in humane ways."
DiPaola envisions cameras and other sensors, such as GPS units and accelerometers, that could track wildlife in real time and relay their data to zoos and aquariums where virtual creatures would duplicate the behaviour of the real animals.
"What's great about it is that, even though you come to know and love your favourite animal, it's left in the wild so you can see it in real situations, but you have added options like being able to play back the 'greatest hits' of the previous week, seeing the situation from different angles, feeling more empathy with the animal because you can observe their heart rate and other data to understand how it feels in particular situations." Zoos and aquariums with virtual exhibits could also share their exhibits over the internet, he points out.
DiPaola sees educational uses as well. School children could visit the aquarium or zoo and choose a virtual animal which they would download to a memory stick and take it back to their school. "They could learn about it and interact with it and then bring it back and compare it to the same fish or animal that others had chosen. You'd have a credit next to the fish that you took care of. It brings the experience home in a much more significant way and still tells the biological story."
A glimpse of the future? A schoolgirl studies one of DiPaola's virtual belugas.
The technology isn't quite there yet, he says. "It's very hard to come up with a virtual experience as engaging as real ones, but we're getting close."
Also in technology news this week:
Amazon announced that sales of Kindle e-books outnumbered sales of hardcover books for the first time ever. In the second quarter of this year, the online store said it sold 143 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books, according to the Guardian. But in good news for lovers of traditional books, readers of the popular social media blog Mashable.com voted in an (unscientific) online poll in favour of print books, with 41.9% saying they preferred traditional books and 23.24% opting for e-books.
Mashable also has a warning about two Facebook-related scams making the rounds. Basically, you should avoid any Facebook status update that starts off “OMG!”.
Is happiness just 140 characters away? Researchers from the Harvard Medical School and Northeastern University have plotted the happiness of Americans through their use of Twitter, the New York Times reports. The researchers analyzed more than 300 million messages that were sent through Twitter’s service between September 2006 and August 2009. Unsurprisingly, American tweeters are happier on the weekend than during the work week. The full research project is called “Pulse of the Nation: U.S. Mood Throughout the Day Inferred From Twitter”.
Burglary may also be just 140 characters away. Police in Toronto and Saanich are warning people not to tweet about their vacation plans, says the Globe and Mail. Even bad guys know how to search Twitter timelines for keywords such as “vacation” and “holiday”. And don’t think Facebook is any more safe, even if you’re using its privacy settings. As Sergeant Dean Jantzen of the Saanich police points out, “Some people have 2,000 friends.… you post you are going to Mexico for two weeks and you can’t have possibly vetted 2,000 different people.”
And if that vacation you’re tweeting about is taking you to Pinery Provincial Park in Ontario, you’ll be able to stay connected to all your followers and friends while sleeping under the stars. The agency that runs provincial parks in Ontario is offering free wifi in the park this year, and will extend it to other parks if campers like the idea, CTV reports. Parks Canada is apparently considering the idea as well in an effort to reverse a drop in the number of visitors to national parks.