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Articles - Through the looking Glass

Google Glass could give you instant access to bird information wherever you are.
Google Glass could give you instant access to bird information wherever you are.

Alan Tilmouth - Posted on 02 May 2013

Some 25 years ago, when I began to rekindle a childhood interest in birds, I glimpsed the small blur of electric blue of a now-familiar Kingfisher as it zipped away. No optics, no notebook, just a simple naked eye view that reignited a boyhood passion.

More recently I stopped to talk to an elderly lady while out birding in the local community park. Gazing across a nearby pond, we began a conversation about birds, and I shared my sighting of a resting party of Whooper Swans from the previous day. I was able to show her images on my iPhone that I had taken by connecting my binoculars with the phone's camera. Then I played her a sound recording I had made. Visually and aurally, I was able to share my experience with her in a way I could not have imagined 25 years earlier.

All change

We all know that huge changes have taken place in birding in recent decades. In particular, the internet and the advent of social media mean that the ways in which we share our birding experiences are much more technology based than ever before. Many of our 'elder statesmen' look back with sadness to a golden age of notebooks and café news, now part of folklore and little recognised today.

Technology has embedded itself in such a way that it is hard to conceive of an important record, say a first for Britain, ever being accepted again without photographs or sound recordings – depending on the species involved. The speed of communication today can deliver news from the finder to birders in every corner of our islands in a matter of seconds.

But the last 25 years may have just been a taster, both in terms of the relatively slow speed of change and the impact on how we bird and how we share as a community. Those of us that have another 25 years still to look forward to may be about to witness developments so incredible that it will change how we share our birding beyond the imagination of many.

Raise your Glass

The source of this change is Google and its latest technology launch, Google Glass (GG). Described as “wearable technology”, GG is essentially a pair of spectacles with similar capabilities to the latest mobile phone technology, with internet access enabled through WiFi and a potentially huge range of apps, many of them revolutionary. Operated by voice control, GG can capture images, video, surf the net, live-stream video, provide directions and translate languages. What makes it especially unique is that, while it’s obvious that you're wearing it, what you're doing with it isn't.

As the screen display is small and projected in front of the eye, users can be filming or scanning the web without anyone around them being aware they are being recorded. Much is being made in the tech media regarding privacy issues, and GG is sure to produce some fierce debate and critics, but the technology won't be uninvented and just like the previous advance of the smartphone, as prices fall the use of GG will become more mainstream and widespread. The potential implications for birding could be incredible.

Google Glass

Birding potential

Out in the field with GG and faced with an unfamiliar species, a birder of the future might quickly access image recognition software contained within a Shazam-style GG app that holds a visual fingerprint of all species and plumages, and finds a best match for the mystery bird. A quick voice command opens the GG online version of van Duivendijk’s Advanced Bird ID Guide to double-check the key ID features and confirm the identification. Sound far-fetched? The technology already exists in the Insight development for GG to identify people via a 'fingerprint' created by a smartphone app that takes a series of pictures of a person. The app then creates a file known as a spatiogram that records the various colours and patterns and cross-references new visual images against the file when requested. The leap from the identification of people to sorting out a tasty Acrocephalus warbler shouldn't be too difficult, should it?

Identification confirmed, our future birder might switch to capturing images using GG’s built-in camera through the eyepiece of his scope, which is fitted with a small secondary lens to enable the observer to use the main eyepiece and grab pictures simultaneously using voice control while still observing the bird. A quick spoken command will switch to video-recording mode and another will begin live streaming the video to our birder's account with BirdGuides. The news team, after verifying the identification and running it through a comparative search of previously submitted video reports to try to detect any hoaxes, will share the news, sending an alert that will flash up into the GG screen in the corner of all GG BirdGuides subscribers’ spectacles, allowing the user to access the report with a single 'show video' voice command.

Potentially, observers could toggle between the live stream still running from the field and earlier recordings. These live reports will be interspersed with traditional non-GG news reports, giving rise to the new phrase 'a wholly un-glassed report of ...'. Twitchers armed with GG will immediately be able to detect the GPS co-ordinates embedded within the news report and view a map showing them route options to get to the site, along with options for vantage points and a list of where to get a latté post-twitch.

Later that evening, from the comfort of an armchair in Shetland, one of the Rarities Committee team will open up the daily download file provided by BirdGuides and review the day's records. Astute observers will have panned their GG camera to ensure that the Rarities Committee is aware their eastern ‘mega’ was multi-observed, the Insight technology identifying each individual observer by name as they appear in camera view to confirm their presence. Circumstances, quality of views and assessment of critical features will no longer be subjectively based on an observer's account, as the first-hand video file will provide all that's needed to assess each individual record.

Around Britain, meanwhile, nine others are doing the same ready for the following morning's Rarities Committee round-up posted online back to GG users (and still emailed out to non-GG users) with decisions on the previous day's birds. Afterwards, our ageing committee member may even relax with a single malt and reflect back to the 'good old days' when a work-in-progress file was posted every three months online, eagerly awaited and dissected by birders with computer access.

Breaking Glass

With any new technology comes issues, and birding with GG will unquestionably bring many. How many overlooked birds will be retrospectively 'found' among online video archive files? What happens when unwary observers, perhaps making identification errors, are caught on camera and the footage is posted online? Will it improve behaviour at twitches, or create endless online flame wars over privacy? Perhaps the ultimate question will be whether a bird streamed live via GG is countable on your list if you didn't see it with the naked eye? Might a whole new breed of lister be born once GG becomes available? In an age of carbon footprint concern and the ever-increasing cost of twitching, will we see the 'virtual twitch' become popular?

Listers content to swap through-the-scope views for live video stream in order to tick a rarity may be able to take the moral high ground when it comes to carbon emissions, but could it ever really be a substitute for the real experience of a wind-swept October day on Fair Isle? Time will tell.

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