A Holographic Approach to Conservation

A Holographic Approach to Conservation

A Cahow from Nonsuch Island, Bermuda, in a Looking Glass holographic display

We’re living in a time when a huge number of species across the planet are at risk of going extinct. As humans and our impact continues to expand across the planet, the viable habitats for some of the most vulnerable species shrink to tiny areas, small oases in the planet where the species can continue to survive. One of these species is the Cahow, or Bermuda Petrel, an extremely endangered, pigeon-sized seabird whose destiny is intertwined with a tiny spec of habitat called Nonsuch Island in Bermuda.

different-scale maps showing Nonsuch Island, the only 14 acres on the planet where Cahows can breed

Nonsuch is a tiny island, about 14 acres in size. Its size and isolation are the saving grace for the Cahow — a bird that evolved before rats or people came to Bermuda and has the unique ecological feature of nesting in holes in the ground for the five very vulnerable months that it takes to go from egg to fledged chick. Once people and rats came to Bermuda, the population of Cahows was driven into near-extinction, and now, after decades of effort, there are only 135 mating pairs of the bird in existence. All of them nest on Nonsuch and a few nearby rocks.

Cahows are traveling birds, and don’t survive in captivity. When a Cahow chick fledges, it flies on its first attempt and doesn’t touch land again for five years. Nesting Cahows regularly travel from Bermuda to the Gulf of Maine to feed on their favorite squid, and they make the 1,500 mile round-trip in about five days. Scientists tracking the Cahow with GPS tags clocked the birds traveling at 100mph (with the wind at their backs, but still!) during the trip. These are birds that have evolved to survive at edge of the world.

That’s the fundamental challenge for Cahows — they like to live in the middle of nowhere, and there’s not much nowhere left. It’s only thanks to the work of a few dedicated conservationists that Nonsuch can stay isolated from the inexorable flow of human expansion, and remain a viable habitat for the Cahow.

This work is admirable, but how do you make people care about the Cahow? We learn about a lot of animals through zoos, but these birds aren’t meant for zoos. You can see them in the wild, but Nonsuch is not a big place, and you don’t want that many people coming out to Nonsuch — maybe a couple thousand people alive today have seen a Cahow in person, and if you tried to bring ten times that many people out to Nonsuch, you would drive the Cahows into extinction. This is where I came into the story.

I had built my first holographic video camera, and was presenting it at a show last year when I met JP Rouja, a Conservationist and Tech Developer who runs Nonsuch Expeditions, an organization that works to document and spread awareness of Bermuda’s unique biodiversity and the Cahows. I’m one of the co-founders of a holographic display company called Looking Glass, and for the past nine months, I’ve been working on a number of techniques to capture digital holographic images and video of the natural world, that we can play back in our displays. Holograms present the illusion that something is there in front of you when in fact it’s not — it could be a recording, or a live scene being streamed from another part of the world. I am particularly interested in capturing holographic video of the natural world, and had been working with various conversationist organizations to film different animals, large and small, with cameras that I designed. JP had actually already built infrastructure on Nonsuch to stream live 2D footage of the Cahowsin their nests, and had cultivated a large community of Cahow fans the world over. Over several conversations, JP and I worked out a plan to take the live presence setup to the next level by live-streaming holographic footage of Cahows from their natural habitat on Nonsuch out into the world, where they could be viewed, life-sized, in our displays.

A brief note on holographic cameras — this isn’t something that you can buy. If you want one, you have to build the hardware and software to operate it. Holograms are all about capturing a scene from many different perspectives, simultaneously, and Cahow nests are one of the most challenging places to film. They are small, pitch-black holes in the ground, and you can only film the Cahow chicks in infrared. There is a limited window in time where we can install a camera in a nest, when there are no Cahows nesting, and then it just has to work. Perfectly. Over the course of four months, I designed and built a prototype holographic Cahow-cam that would be capable of capturing holographic footage of a Cahow chick.

Testing the Cahow cam in the lab — that little black strip in the front is actually 32 separate cameras, rolling simultaneously.
Cahow cam, capturing footage of a chick during an ornithologist’s health check
Shooting holographic B-roll of scientist Jeremy Madeiros doing a health check on a Cahow chick

Once the camera was ready, I brought it down to Bermuda and Nonsuch Expeditions took us out to Nonsuch Island to shoot the first holographic footage of the Cahow. Over the course of several days, I worked with JP and the scientists working there to film Cahow chicks. For this first experiment, we shot test footage in a lit, artificial burrow while the scientists were performing routine health checks on the Cahow chicks, and then returned the chicks to their nests.

After processing the footage, we were able to do what we set out to do — to show a life-size, holographic replica of a Cahow in one of our displays. And it looks wonderful.

holographic Cahow chick in its holographic nest

This is just the beginning, of course — a proof of concept of a third way to represent wild animals in human environments. It is my hope that this can develop further into a range of techniques for filming and viewing wild animals in their natural habitat, as an alternative to viewing animals in captivity or bringing large numbers of humans out to the fragile ecosystems where these animals live. I want to see this concept grow out into the world, and to continue working with conservationist partners like Nonsuch Expeditions to film and live-stream more species in the future. For an island that is unique in its ability to hatch extraordinary things, I’m thrilled to be working on Nonsuch to bring one more delightful idea out into the world.

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