The phrase “tech diffusion” means the process by which advances in technological innovations are taken up by the general population, i.e., you and me. It’s hard to recall the time when we didn’t have so much access; if we were to skip back to 2010 or even 2015, we would be a little amazed at the things that just didn’t exist then, that do now. Tech advances are being made all the time behind closed Silicon Valley doors with the very real aim of unleashing those new-fangled devices onto the global population.
Consider the recent news (at the time of writing at the end of 2022 – who knows how far we’ve come if you’re reading this in a few years’ time) about ChatGBT, the latest AI chatbot capable of generating text advanced and intuitive enough that it has stunned many academics, programmers and journalists with its writing ability, proficiency at complex issues and ease of use – maybe it will be writing these blogs from now on…
Birding can be a very niche pastime, and the very essence of the subject throws up obstacles and challenges not encountered in any other activity; the greatest challenge many birdwatchers face is identification, to know just what it is they are looking at. Many people aren’t always concerned, and simply find the joy of watching birds either at their feeders or out in their natural habitat ample enough pleasure, and of course there is nothing wrong with that. But for those who must know more, the technology to help them get that awareness has absolutely taken off, pardon the pun.
Back in 2014, a now familiar sounding app was developed for iPhones, by Columbia University and the University of Maryland, called Birdsnap; take a photo of a bird with your phone and then facial recognition software in the app would ID the bird for you. This was one of many precursors to the tech we see alive and kicking today, negating the need to lumber around a hefty field guide with you.
The internet is now awash with apps that can help you ID birds via what they look like or their song, with the most popular for many being the Merlin app, of course, also developed in 2014 and the forerunner of bird ID apps today with its relatively recent new feature of being able to identify birdsong.
BirdCast is also a revolutionary advance in predicting migration; the Cornell Lab’s hugely successful project now scans the night skies via radar networks and creates bird-migration forecasts that everyone can follow. This big data is now also used to help protect those flying the night skies, by alerting authorities to dim bright lights across cities so the birds can pass undistracted and true to their destinations.
But there are great strides being taken all the time. Some of you may recall the somewhat pre-emptive fanfare when Google Glass came onto the scene, only to seemingly crash and burn under its own restrictions. Glass used AR – augmented reality – rather than VR, virtual reality. Virtual reality is when you don a pair of goggles, gloves and other sensory gadgets, and you are “shown” a different world around you, one often populated with zombies. Augmented reality is when information or images are overlaid on the real world that you see in front of you; Glass aimed to provide the viewer with access to anything they wanted right in front of their eyes.
Prohibitive battery life, costs and a not-so-friendly user interface put paid to the idea – for now. The technology behind it is still being fine-tuned in the shadows and will no doubt one day grace our retinas once more. But the potential was grasped by birders – being able to see in real-time whilst you were looking at the bird, all of the info a field guide could hold and more.
In the meantime, similar ideas are springing up. Swarovski Optik have already released a digital scope called the Digital Guide, or dG for short, a monocular that uses AI to ID birds. Unveiled as a prototype at a BirdFair in Rutland, UK, in 2019, the device caused much of a stir, and is now on general sale. The sleek design does much to reduce the overall bulkiness of it, which incorporates a main spotting scope lens in the center with a smaller camera lens next to it.
This integrated camera connects to the Merlin app and instantly gives you an ID of what you’re looking at through the scope, although you still have to view this info on the app on your phone, and the price isn’t exactly for all at the current GB price of £1320. The eventual aim for all of these devices is to one day show you exactly all of that info whilst you are viewing the bird through the scope lens. Think Luke Skywalker checking the perimeter of his Tatooine homestead for lurking cloaked dangers, tiny digital readouts appearing as he scans the horizon.
Predictions for the next few years follow these same lines; the success of phone apps in the wild will be superseded by something, and the benefits won’t just be about having information instantly available. One device that is currently showing great promise for assisting those birdwatchers among us who are restricted in their access to birds is the Wi-Fi binocular.
Originally developed for hunters, these are currently being trialed on reserves and parks by Audubon chapter staff, these binoculars use Wi-Fi to stream whatever the user is viewing to an iPad in the possession of someone else. So far there have been good and bad points – of course, the signal needs to be good, and users have reported buffering delays or simply just scrambled images as the viewer pans too quickly seeking out the bird. Birds are, of course, not exactly slow moving, so this is a downside that will need to be addressed, which it will be.
But for participants who would otherwise simply have no chance of using any viewing device for birdwatching, such as those with mobility, balance, grip, or sight issues, having someone else do the seeking and then broadcasting what is out there in a format that makes it instantly accessible is an immense step forward, opening up the world of birds to more people who would love to see what we see. Remember, the person isn’t disabled – the environment is disabling.
The visionaries among us predict great things for birdwatching tech – the processing power of smartphones only ever improves, making those supercomputers and their apps in your hand gateways to a wealth of data that can be used for conservation purposes, not just about the birds it detects but other data like weather and the air quality. Smart bird feeders would contribute to general population data; imagine being able to actively contribute to the IUCN species list, helping scientists monitor endangered birds in real-time.
With smart optics, you could also share and gather your information across the ether with other birders all over the world simultaneously; say there’s a lifer, that tropical bird you have always wanted to see but you’re stuck in rainy Wales. Add it to a list, then get a push notification when it appears in the viewfinder of someone in Ecuador who has the same bird on their list; suddenly, you’re both right there watching it, miles apart but united in amazement.
Birding tech is only going to get better, and we can’t wait to be there for it.