The botanically-minded among you will be fascinated by the developments of an upcoming augmented reality application being created by The National Science Foundation. As we reported in "Scientists Developing iPhone App to Crowdsource Plant Research" last week, the app will make it possible to use your smartphone to identify trees wherever you see them.
The app merely requires you to snap a photo of a plant's leaf, preferably against a good plain background. It then automatically determines the shape of the leaf, and sends the data off to a remote computer. Here the leaf image is compared with a large image archive of different tree leaves—about 20 examples per species are kept as references. Any likely matches are simply sent back down to the smartphone for you, along with extra information such as a description of bark to help aid identification.
Of course if you're really into botany, then you'll know many leaf profiles by heart—but there's a staggering number of different species, and you're bound to come across many that you aren't familiar with. "We believe there's enough information in a single leaf to identify a species. Our brains can't remember all of these characteristics, but the computer can," says W. John Kress from the Smithsonian. He's on the team working on the app.
The app is currently being tested as an iPhone app, but it will be extended to other smartphones later. It's being made as a useful tool for trees typically found in the north-eastern U.S.—different lookup databases would be required for the flora of different parts of the world.
More than just a curiosity for those interested in botany, the tree guide is likely to find use in education and for scientists compiling environmental data or perhaps even engaged in species-discovery. It's also a little sample of how augmented reality apps will really change how we look at the world as smartphone technology becomes more sophisticated.