Biologist Pioneers Use of CREATE’s ‘Time Machine’

| May 3, 2011

Sweet Briar College’s Janet Steven is enjoying the perks of being a Fine Fellow.

First, the fellowship came with equipment and training on the GigaPan system, a pioneering tool that has been making headlines in the scientific community. It combines a robotic camera mount and software that stitches together thousands of photographs taken with an ordinary digital camera to make panoramic images with resolutions measured in hundreds of millions of pixels.

Click image to play video

Click image to see the plants grow.

With a just-released time lapse feature, viewers can move back and forth through time and space while seeing details at levels not possible before. Steven is among the first scientists to take pictures that can be viewed using the GigaPan Time Machine. Her video, taken early last fall over 26 days showing the growth of Wisconsin fast plants, can be viewed on the Time Machine website.

Another perk is working with scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment lab, known as CREATE, which partnered with NASA to develop the technology with support from the Fine Foundation. This Steven describes as “fun.”

The Fine Fellows Program is an intentionally “no-strings-attached approach” that lets participants apply the technology in whatever ways they can think of. Part of the fun, Steven says, is users don’t have to know or do the “nitty gritty” of making the system work. The lab provides the technical know-how so scientists in myriad fields are free to invent ways to use it.

“My job was to take really good pictures,” Steven says of her first effort, which she shot in a now defunct dark room in Guion Science Center. It’s a largely hidden spot but like everywhere else on campus is well known to marmorated stinkbugs. Her Canon PowerShot G10, firing 21 times every 15 minutes, caught the invasive pests dining on the Brassica rapa plants.

She sent the still images to the CREATE lab, where the GigaPan developers stitched together the high-resolution panoramas and time sequences. She says she did so “on faith” that they would one day be a video, because they were taken while the Time Machine was still in development. Steven’s contribution is one of five pilots now viewable on the Time Machine website.

For Steven, an assistant professor of biology at Sweet Briar and plant biologist with research interests in reproductive biology, genetics and evolution, the technology’s prospects are exciting. When she joined the program, she thought about using the time lapse feature for teaching.

“Plants are busy moving and growing and changing all of the time, but we don’t normally see it because they operate in a much slower time scale than we do,” she says. “Time lapse has long been used to bring plants up to our speed, and is a great tool to get students thinking about plants as living things and plants as organisms with behavior.”

Then she attended a Fine conference on gigapixel imaging and began thinking more about research applications.”You can see a single plant within the context of the entire population, and collect data at multiple scales,” she says. “It has the potential to be very useful when studying seasonal change in plants.”

It’s a way to capture a lot of visual information that scientists didn’t have before. All that information can be observed and translated into numbers — albeit painstakingly until software is developed to extract the quantitative data from the film.

Steven is eagerly anticipating a sabbatical in the coming year and will be working with a researcher at the University of Virginia. One project she is contemplating would place the GigaPan rig outdoors to observe the effect of deer grazing on American bellflowers.

Ultimately she plans for her students to work with the system. “My long-term goal is to have students design experiments that I then film with the GigaPan, so that students in other classrooms can make observations on a monthlong plant experiment in a matter of days.”

For more on the GigaPan Time Machine, visit these websites:

Science magazine (requires subscription)
CREATE lab press release
Popular Science magazine

Jennifer McManamay

Category: Biology, Uncategorized