The world is in the midst of a climate and biodiversity crisis. This year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that 40% of the human population is already highly vulnerable to climate change, and in 2019 the United Nations (UN) reported that one million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction. At the Eden Project, we are always striving to find new ways to increase people’s connection to nature and inspire them to act in ways that have positive impacts.
Winning a place in the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme has given Eden Universe Project the opportunity to explore the role that technology can play. It allowed us to look at how 5G can help to develop a series of augmented and virtual experiences that not only enhance the onsite visitors experience but also help to deliver our message to much wider audiences as a result of that technology enhancement.
Throughout the project we worked with our partners Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF), an experiential art collective that specialises in Augmented Reality (AR) to explore the world beyond our senses. Together we created the vision of using AR to reveal hidden worlds in nature that could influence visitors’ thoughts, feelings and actions towards biodiversity and the climate. Thus the ‘Invisible Rainforest’ AR experience was born and where better to do that, than the backdrop of Eden’s iconic Rainforest Biome.
The ‘Invisible Rainforest’ is an augmented reality journey around the Rainforest Biome that reveals hidden worlds in nature. Eden’s content team worked with creative and technical direction from MLF to translate the science and capture the majesty of nature into two AR experiences: ‘Living Lens’ and ‘Weather Maker’. Led by a guide and using tablets and headsets, visitors explore the AR in different parts of the Biome.
‘Living Lens’ reveals the way plants appear through the senses of three different rainforest animals: a mosquito which detects infrared and CO2,; a bee which sees in ultraviolet; and a bat which navigates at night using echolocation. MLF created augmented portals into the worlds of these creatures and an accompanying voice-over that revealed the special relationships between these animals and certain plants that grow in the rainforest.
‘Weather Maker’ takes the exploration of nature from the micro to the macro by bringing into view the movement of carbon and water through plants, soil and air. This AR experience reveals how trees and plants absorb CO2 from the air and pump water back into it. Nowhere else on Earth is the effect of this greater than in the tropical rainforests. If visitors could see this, could they gain a greater understanding of what’s going wrong with the climate and why we need to restore natural ecosystems, like the rainforests?
To embark on the ‘Weather Maker’, we needed a tree, and a big one. It was a steep learning curve, when the first tree we picked fell down due to unstable roots. MLF’s work on mapping the detail of underground roots and fungal networks had to be scrapped and started again. Settling on the African Oil Nut tree, one of the largest in the Biome, the team developed a two-part experience at the bottom and top of the tree. Using their tablets visitors could ‘see’ inside the tree trunk, ‘peer’ underground and visualise the invisible particles of water and CO2 in the air.
Testing the use cases did not come without their challenges. We worked to build the AR experiences into a tour around the Biome led by Eden’s expert storytellers, which enabled the visitor's transition from the real world into the world of augmented reality. The ambition was for groups of eight to do the tour at the same time. This wasn’t possible due to the limited capacity of the 5G network which managed to reach 50MHz and not the desired 100MHz. The back stop was a fixed fibre network with several API’s stashed around the Biome to provide the coverage we needed. However, uplink (data from the user to the network, such as web page requests) and downlink speeds (data from the network to the user, such as streaming video) were sluggish and so only two people could explore the AR at one time. In addition, the vegetation, heat and humidity in the Biome tested the tablets to their max. A stronger 5G network may have allowed us to trial the experience with many more visitors, leading to an even greater understanding of what the technology could do..
Our third partner in the project, 360° camera company META, offered a unique challenge and opportunity to develop the AR for audiences online. The ultimate goal was to generate AR content over the top of a live 360° camera that travelled 25m up and down our ‘Weather Maker’ tree. We found that livestreaming this camera impacted the onsite experience due to the tablets sharing the network with this camera, and five others that were being tested as part of a virtual tour. Instead we created a pre-recorded stream of the camera and AR content which we built into an online ‘Invisible Rainforest’ journey. Ultimately the outcome was the same, which was to transport viewers to the sights and sounds of the Biome through META’s ultra-high-resolution cameras.
Even with the network and technical difficulties we faced, the project was a great success in exploring how technology could be brought into the visitor experience at Eden Project. Evaluation of the visitor trials found that 84% said the AR experience improved their understanding of the interconnectedness of the natural world. Nearly 70% said they were inspired to feel and act differently towards nature. Eden’s storytellers got a 100% excellent rating, showing there’s nothing quite like that human interaction.
By increasing the strength of Eden’s 5G network, we may be able to make the Invisible Rainforest available to more of Eden’s one million visitors a year. The stronger the network, the more likely it is that over two people could do the experience at the same time, as well as improving the speed and quality.
One of the main challenges was implementing the AR within the Biome and this comes down to the conflict between technical systems that love a sterile consistent environment and the living, changing conditions in the Rainforest Biome. One of the biggest achievements was getting the cameras to reliably work in this harsh environment for the electronics.
The greatest achievement of Eden Universe overall, is the valuable knowledge gained on 5G technology and the potential it offers for enhancing Eden's mission to build relationships between people and the natural world.
Looking ahead, with a fully public 5G network, we could look to develop the experience into something app based, where each visitor can download the app to their device and explore the AR content throughout the Biome at their own pace.
Turns out that to make an experience like this work for the masses you really do need a super-fast network!
5G opens up new possibilities for immersive learning experiences for educational organisations like Eden. The DCMS Testbed and Trials Programme has allowed Eden to evaluate how we can use technology to help deliver our mission further.
The learnings will now be shared with other organisations as well as new Eden’s in development all over the world.
- Eden Universe Visitor Experience Video
- Eden Universe Education Video
- Eden Universe Health and Wellbeing Video
- Eden Universe Art and Culture Video
Eden’s Mission: Eden Project is an educational charity and social enterprise. Its mission is to create a movement that builds relationships between people and the natural world to demonstrate the power of working together for the benefit of all living things.