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John Seiler’s Team Continues to Use Emerging Technologies to Teach Tree Identification


   

John Peterson, Bob Potts, and John Seiler standing near a tree. Each is holding a smartphone. Left to right are John Peterson, Bob Potts, and John Seiler.

Feb. 15, 2013 – There is a smartphone application for just about everything these days — you can transform blurry snapshots into breathtaking photographs, play a game of Tetris, and turn your phone into a virtual Bic lighter. Thanks to two college researchers, you can also use your smartphone as a tree identification tool.

Alumni Distinguished Professor John Seiler and Laboratory Specialist John Peterson of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, along with forest landowner and programmer Bob Potts, created a free application for the Android smartphone that allows users to identify the woody plants around them. The app, titled Virginia Tech Tree Identification, is available as a free download on Google Play.

Potts, a self-described amateur naturalist and frequent visitor to Seiler and Peterson’s Dendrology at Virginia Tech website, approached the two about the possibility of developing the app for use in the field by combining the website’s tree fact sheets and interview key with the smartphone’s portability and GPS capabilities.

“We want to get the app into the hands of as many people as possible, which is why it was important for us to make it available to the public at no cost,” Seiler said.

The app includes fact sheets for 969 woody plants with descriptions, range maps, and over 6,400 images of leaves, bark, flowers, fruit, twigs, and form.

Using the phone’s GPS receiver, network signal, or a user-entered location to narrow down the list of species native to an area, the application becomes “Woody Plants of Where You Are Standing.” For example, it can become “Woody Plants of Southwestern Oregon” or “Woody Plants of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

The app is not limited by the location of the user’s smartphone; it can display data for virtually any address, GPS coordinates, or location description in North America entered by the user.

With the app’s interview key, users can further narrow the list of possible species by answering a series of simple tree attribute questions like where the tree is growing, how the leaves are shaped, or what the flowers or fruits look like.

If users have some knowledge of the species they are trying to identify, they can narrow the species list by typing in a keyword. Users can also email tree-related questions and photos directly to “Dr. Dendro,” Seiler’s online alter ego.

Potts programmed the app; Peterson created digitized range maps for each species, worked on the interview key, and manipulated the database; and Seiler provided most of the photographs and lent his eye for design, product testing, and end-user market research. Alumnus Andrew Meeks (’04 B.S. in wildlife science), a professional web application developer, helped solve some technical issues.

The app became the most downloaded tree identification app available from Google Play just three months after its release. At press time, it had over 18,000 downloads and was rated 4.6 out of five stars. An iPhone version is currently in development.

In addition to the Android app, Seiler and Peterson recently released the third edition of their DVD-based software program Woody Plants in North America. The program, which expands on the tree fact sheets and includes side-by-side species comparisons, a quiz function, and over 23,000 photos, serves as a comprehensive tutorial for species identification. This popular resource, developed and refined over the course of 15 years, is used by students and practitioners alike.

According to Seiler, the new edition represents a large improvement from its predecessors. “We constantly listen to student feedback,” he said. “The whole navigation system is easier, there are dozens of new species and thousands of new photographs, and many poor photographs have been replaced.”

Efforts on the software program began when the late Professor Peter Feret obtained a U.S. Department of Agriculture Challenge Grant to fund the project. Seiler and Peterson, who were tapped to continue Feret’s work, collaborated with co-author Professor Ed Jensen of Oregon State University as well as researchers from the Pennsylvania State University and the University of Georgia to compile the program’s vast collection of photographs.

“I’m proud of what we have built,” Peterson remarked. “I have felt thankful and fortunate from the beginning. John Seiler and I are a good tree identification software team.”


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