Cornell researchers farm pixels | Great Lakes Echo

Model Red Hook Farms within a virtual reality simulation. Photo: Tapan Parikh

By Genevieve Fox

As virtual reality grows in the entertainment world, a team of Cornell researchers is using it to prepare farmers for hard work.

Tapan Parikh, an associate professor of informatics at Cornell University, leads a research group that teaches people about the importance of urban farming.

“The goal is to anticipate the idea of ​​a farm visit, but in situations where the cost of travel is seen as prohibitive or limiting,” Parikh said.

It began as a collaboration with Cornell Associate Professor of Horticulture Jenny Cao-Niffin to raise awareness about soil health.

With climate change and a growing population disrupting agriculture, teaching people to be innovative farmers is critical, Cao-Niffin said.

“There has to be a way to quickly spread knowledge from farmer to farmer, from community to community,” Cao-Niffin said.

The team used drones to take pictures and used photogrammetry to create 3D models of Red Hook Farms, New York City’s largest organic farm.

The farm was interested in the project and the team found it easy to model, Parikh said.

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Cornell hopes to collaborate with other farms that want to create different virtual reality spaces for people to visit and learn how to farm. The idea is to document and record the various practices used on a successful farm.

The platform will be accessible to the public next year through virtual reality headsets or Oculus Quest and PCs, Parikh said.

“We’re especially excited about using this technology because it’s an opportunity to engage young people,” Parikh said.

When people put on the headset, they are placed in a virtual farm. Users can “walk” around the farm and watch instructional videos by farm managers and workers that illustrate some of the practices used at Red Hook Farms, such as composting and growing crops, he said.

“It’s also possible to be in a virtual reality space with other people,” Parikh said.

That doesn’t mean it comes without limits. Virtual reality headsets are expensive, Parikh said.

Oculus Quest reports a starting price of $399 for one of its headsets.

“Some people may not have that or can’t afford it,” Parikh said.

The team hopes to partner with local schools, libraries and community organizations to increase access to these headsets, Parikh said.

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Even with these advanced technologies, researchers will never replicate the actual farming experience, Parikh said.

“The smell, the sound, the taste — there’s always a gap between being there in person and then being there in a virtual space,” Parikh said.

Despite the limitations, Parikh hopes that virtual reality will be useful in teaching young people about urban agriculture. It’s a way to learn about our food system and its origins, he said.

There are similar educational applications. Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, has used virtual reality in the classroom for more than 5 years, said Andrew Peterson, the university’s director of e-learning.

Most classes focus on heating, ventilation and air conditioning — known as HVAC — or science, technology, engineering and math — STEM, Peterson said.

Although there is little data or evidence that virtual reality actually helps students learn, he believes it does, Peterson said.

“The engagement is there.”

Although there is no plan to add agricultural virtual reality to his curriculum, he believes that it will be very useful.

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In the VR HVAC environment, students learn how to fix problems like a broken air conditioner in a simulated environment, Peterson said.

“If you can simulate an HVAC environment, there are a lot of things in a farm environment that are hands-on, and a lot of people don’t have access to those hands-on environments,” Peterson said.

If you want to learn about agricultural practices in China, with a click of a button you can learn about them with virtual reality, Peterson said. The beauty of virtual reality is how experiential it is.

At Cornell, the goal is for others to use the platform to record farming practices like irrigation and harvesting so that one day, users will be able to enter any type of farm and learn different practices, Parikh said.

This can help cities cope with environmental shocks like floods if people learn better how to be more resilient to them, Parikh said.

The project is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and a Cornell Tech Urban Tech Hub seed grant.

Parikh’s team hopes to release the project early next year with additional funding.


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