By Genevieve Fox
As virtual reality grows in the world of entertainment, a team of Cornell researchers is using it to prepare farm workers for hard work.
Tapan Parikh, associate professor of information science at Cornell University, leads a research group to teach people the importance of urban farming.
“The goal is to approximate the idea of visiting a farm, but in cases where the cost of travel is seen as prohibitive or restrictive,” Parikh said.
It started with a collaboration with Cornell University Associate Professor of Horticulture Jenny Kao-Kniven to raise awareness about soil health.
Kao-Kniffin said that with climate change and a growing population disrupting agriculture, it’s important to teach people to be innovative farmers.
“There has to be a way to spread knowledge from farmer to farmer, community to community quickly,” Kao-Kniven said.
The team used drones to take photos and used photogrammetry to create 3D models of Red Hook Farms, New York City’s largest organic farm.
Parikh said the farm was interested in the project and it was only fitting that the team designed it.
Cornell hopes to collaborate with other farms to create a variety of virtual reality spaces for people to visit and learn how to farm. The idea is to document and record the different practices used on a successful farm.
Barikh said that the platform will be available to the public next year through a virtual reality headset or Oculus Quest and a personal computer.
“We are particularly excited about the use of this technology because it is an opportunity to engage young people,” Parikh said.
When people wear the headset, they are placed on the virtual farm. He said users can “tour” the farm and watch educational videos by farm managers and workers demonstrating specific practices such as fertilizing and cropping used on Red Hook Farms.
“It is also possible to be in the virtual reality space with other people,” Parikh said.
This does not mean that it comes without restrictions. Parikh said that virtual reality headsets are very expensive.
Oculus Quest has announced that the starting price for one of its headphones is $399.
“Some people may not have them or can’t afford them,” Parikh said.
Parikh said the team hopes to partner with local schools, libraries and community organizations as a way to increase access to these speakers.
Even with these advanced technologies, Barikh said, researchers will never replicate a real farm experiment.
“The smells, the sounds, the tastes — there will always be a gap between being in person and then being in a virtual space,” Parikh said.
Despite the limitations, Parikh hopes virtual reality can be useful for teaching young people about urban farming. He said it was a way to learn about our diet and its origins.
There have been similar educational apps. Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, has been experimenting with virtual reality in classrooms for more than 5 years, said Andrew Peterson, the university’s director of e-learning.
Peterson said most classes focus on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning — better known as HVAC — or science, technology, engineering, and math — STEM.
Peterson said that while there is little data or evidence that VR really helps students learn, he believes it does.
Although there are no plans to add virtual reality for agriculture to their curriculum, he believes it will be very beneficial.
In a VR HVAC environment, Peterson said, students learn how to fix problems like a malfunctioning air conditioner in a simulated environment.
“If you can simulate an HVAC environment, then in an agricultural setting there are a lot of them practical, and not many people have access to those practical environments,” Peterson said.
If you want to know about agricultural practices in China, Peterson said, with just a click of a button, you can learn about them using virtual reality. The beauty of virtual reality is how experiential it is.
The goal at Cornell, Parikh said, is for the platform to be used by others to record farm practices such as watering and harvesting so that one day users can enter any type of farm and learn different practices.
It could help cities withstand environmental shocks like floods, Barikh said, if people learned better how to make them resilient.
The project is funded by the US Department of Agriculture and the Cornell Tech Urban Tech Hub Seed Grant.
With more funding, Barrick’s team hopes they can launch the project early next year.