New Tech Allows Researchers to Simulate

Tabletop role-playing games are about making strategic movements within an imagined environment, where small game pieces signify players and points that can be moved across a space to different outcomes. Think the kids in Stranger Things playing D&D in Mike’s basement.

But these games can help solve real-world problems, too. Open-source modeling software called Tangible Landscape, for example, allows landscape architects to combine augmented reality and spatial data to create and modify a simulated section of land, something researchers have used to control diseases like sudden oak death.Tangible Landscape was developed at North Carolina State University by landscape architect Brendan Harmon, associate director of geovisualization Helena Mitasova, and statistician and geographic information system (GIS) programmer Francisco Tonini.

Using current map data and — in some cases — drones to create new map data, the system produces a CNC-cut miniature replica of an area researchers plan to study. A projector overlays data on top of the replica, and might include spatial data about tree density, water flow or past wildfire paths. Small wooden pegs placed on top of the replica can represent waymarks or new areas of development.If a researcher is curious about changes in tree density, for example, they can use gestures on the replica to instantly create values that are sent back to the simulation program to model. While the models aren’t yet 100 percent accurate for future predictions, the layers of geospatial data gives a very close guess.

“The accuracy depends on how well the model has been validated against empirical data,” Tonini says.
Modeling the spread of disease, for example, requires accurate spatio-temporal empirical data to ensure its validity. “Sudden oak death was particularly hard because the symptoms do not show immediately on trees and that can bias the validation process. However, we built our work on a previously peer-review modeling framework that had a good amount of validation already tested on it.”In a recent application, Tonini and the team role-played as a forest manager, a landowner and a conservationist who were concerned about a section of oak trees within Sonoma Valley, Calif., that might be susceptible to sudden oak death. The team mapped out the locations of bay laurel trees, which are a known host to the disease, and began simulating their removal. Factors like money, time and spread of disease were then generated once the trees were removed from the area. One wrong move can derail a campaign, requiring costly fixes.