Everybody likes to play games, especially video games. Whether it’s a high-resolution, top-notch game with amazing graphics or a simple game of solitaire on your computer, everybody plays games. Even my mom plays Borderlands by GearBox and 2kGames, my dad plays card games on his computer between grading his students’ assignments, and my half-blind aunt plays mahjong on her Kindle.
Everybody likes to play games, and NASA decided to take advantage of that.
One of the difficulties in studying coral reefs is the limitations we have as humans. It’s best to study them in person, but because reefs are underwater, we need tanks to breathe artificial air so we don’t drown while we collect data. We also can’t spend the whole day diving without dying.
Reefs also are pretty spread out and aren’t always close to the shore, so it takes time to travel to all of them and collect data. Funding is an issue because boats and fuel cost money, along with the standard dive equipment, air for the tanks, and the equipment for research.
We also don’t know where all the reefs are in the ocean. In fact, we have mapped out more of the surface of the moon than we have our own oceans—so, who knows where all the coral are!
Speaking of the moon, NASA decided to help coral researchers. They took the same equipment they use to look at stars and pointed them toward our oceans. We can’t use standard camera lenses to photograph reefs from above because of a special law called Snell’s law or the law of refraction.
The law of refraction—which I described in an earlier post—explains how light bends (or refracts) as it passes from one medium to another. Refraction makes taking aerial shots of coral reefs problematic because the subjects become distorted in the image. Using their fluid-correcting lenses, which are manufactured to take Snell’s law into account, NASA has deployed drones and small planes to take pictures of reefs around the world and produce 3D images of what the reefs should look like underwater.
That’s great and all, but all those coral need to be identified, which can take thousands of man hours and hundreds of people. By the time all of the pictures are processed and the coral identified, the reefs may look drastically different and all that data may no longer be relevant. So NASA decided to use the help of video gamers and citizen science to identify all the coral in their photos.
The Neural Multi-Modal Observation and Training Network (NeMO-Net) was created to help marine scientists identify and protect coral. The NeMO-Net game allows players to look at real 3D images of reefs and identify different families of coral, what’s just sand or an invertebrate on the seafloor, and other objects. Players color-code the image based on what they see, so each coral family has its own color, and then players upload their image to a database where other players and scientists can agree or correct what was submitted.
The approved images are used to train a supercomputer at the Ames Research Center to look through collected images and correctly identify what it sees, so that eventually the supercomputer can do it on its own. A supercomputer doesn’t need to sleep or get bored with repetition, so it can go through images a lot faster than a person can. This way, we can get a baseline for our reefs now, and we will be able to identify when there’s a problem so that we can try and fix it before it’s too late.
I have installed the game on my tablet. It’s a lot of fun, and I find it to be really relaxing. Most people can play the game; it doesn’t matter if you’re in elementary school or have a grandkid in elementary school.
NeMO-net is a simple game that allows you to go on virtual dives and identify things on the reef or coastline. You gain experience with each picture you submit, and you slowly level-up your way up the food chain. You can also gain badges and achievements for playing the game.
The best part, in my opinion, is that the game comes with videos that you can unlock. There are video field guides on various creatures you see, how the technology works, and the process behind everything. There’s also written information on the various families of coral you can identify in the game.
NeMO-net is a great way to spend your time and to get into citizen science without any complex understanding of the ocean. And it also makes you feel like you are part of the NASA team; in my case, I feel just a little bit more important to the coral I want to protect.