Transforming Remotely Conducted Research

The TREET Project is exploring remote human-robotic interactions.

First, what is TREET!?

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“TREET (Transforming Remotely Conducted Research through Ethnography, Education & Rapidly Evolving Technologies) is exploring how remote human-robotic interactions can transform the future of ocean research and advance research experiences…”

That came from the Concord Consortium (experts in digital education).

The pieces that are trying to put the remote puzzle together are the above mentioned Concord Consortium, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the local favorites Ocean Exploration Trust and the Harvard Kennedy School.

This effort is being put forth to really see what can be done when the telepresence card is in play. What it enables and what it limits. How can scientists use telepresence technologies to broaden the scope of active participants from shore with at sea research. We’re not talking months from now when the data comes back to the beach; rather, in real time. At the same moment, the TREET team is investigating how these technologies can transform STEM research and education.

As someone who has been immersed in the field of telepresence and what it allows, I can tell you first hand, while there’s still room for improvement, telepresence enabled science and broadcast is the future. If telepresence still sounds like a glorified Skype call to you, then I am requiring you to get your facts from this very well produced short video from our friends at the Ocean Exploration Trust. (OET is the trust that makes up everything E/V Nautilus)

Watch it HERE. (it’ll help)

The TREET project is taking place here at the ISC, and is syncing up with the internationally known E/V Nautilus. Its pretty cutting edge the way this is being done, actually it is a first for this type of work and research. Side note, the area of study: off the island of Grenada, deep inside the Caribbean Sea, an active underwater volcano called Kick ’em Jenny. In fact, it’s the most active submarine volcano in the Caribbean. If that doesn’t get your tail wagging we need to talk. Seriously, email me or something, I’m worried about you. I mean, a volcano, an active volcano…

The TREET team and the ISC aren’t limiting the underwater awesome to just the experts, they’ve strategically brought undergrads into the game. Massively smart move. If inspiration and passion are not handed down to the next generation then we may as well jump in the water now and try to grow gills, good luck. TREET wants to know what makes these undergrads tick, that is once they’re dropped inside our facility and given vast amounts of data. They have mentors and watch leaders to assist them but for the most part, they make up the nuts and bolts.

Once a future expert, or current one, on shore can see and hear the at sea team, actively work on the data syncing from the ship and share their findings, the sea based vessel no longer holds the reins as the sole realm of ocean science. I spoke to one of the watch leaders of the shore based team, Masako Tominaga of Michigan State University, about her perspectives on the project, comparing her past experiences as well as her current ones. Asking her some tough questions, I was able to peek into the world the TREET group will be illuminating.

I summarized our chat below.

First of all, Masako is a sea-going scientist. Aboard a research vessel sailing the blue/green, epically large oceans and seas is where she feels most comfortable. Her sturdy sea legs have been taken away for a comfy seat inside ISC’s Mission Control. It must be like telling a fish to stand up on its caudal (tail) fin and walk out of the ocean, uncomfortable at best. (I think that would be interesting to see though)

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Masako expressed her role in the project as a communications lead. She has to make sure the key individuals here on shore are interacting with the key people of the sea based team. Not only must they communicate, but they need to play nice together.

If you’ve ever been on a ship for an extended period of time, then you know that ship priorities can easily become the only concern. Priorities that keep the mission at sea moving. Who cares about shore, not your problem. The show at sea must keep pushing forward, otherwise a lot of resources are being wasted, not just the green ones. Part of her job is to make sure this doesn’t happen, so the ship takes the shoreside operations into account.

I commented how nice it must be for someone with her skill set to have this technology at her fingertips. She let me know that we might say our feeds and data are real time but according to her, they’re actually not, so I got really defensive and ended our interview. Thanks for reading.

Actually, I was immediately interested in her perspective. She described how she is a field geophysicist in training, data processor at heart.

Working with a multitude of sensors, gathering data from the watery deep is what she does best. Detailing how, at sea, when she works with data sets and recognizes ‘noisy’ patches she remembers it being difficult to walk down the hallways that day. Not because of the bad data, rather, the sea was rough and the sensor’s ability to gather good data was inhibited. Her physical connection to data is what enables her passion. The personal memory link is another data point to add into her processing, it’s real. Arguably just as important as some data itself.

Telepresence and the ability to watch the video and sensors live is a challenge. As Masako watches from the comfort of ISC Mission Control, she does not feel the sea push the building to starboard, making her lean to port, knowing how the sensor will interpret the movement.

Is that a bad thing? I asked with a smile.

Imagine a project you work on, really, do it. You’ve worked on this project for weeks, months, years even. It’s your life when your working on it. You love it. You hate it. You really hate it. You love it again. Your inspired by it. Thoughts and ideas yielded at the oddest times. It’s all you know for a period of time. Now take all of those feelings and think of how they intensely fade away when you become stuck. Everybody gets stuck. All of the sudden you work out enough courage (or frustration) to have a friend, colleague, professor, office mate take a look at it. A fresh pair of eyes, what good timing. Someone disconnected from the process but at the same time intent on connecting with it.

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All of the sudden dots that you never thought existed are pulled out of thin air, right in front of your eyes, because a different pair sees something you could not. It’s a simple concept but much bigger than we’d like to admit. I do it all the time. I never produce, edit or write something without someone else taking a look to give me more ammo than just what I have on my own. This is telepresence. The second, third, and fourth pair of eyes.

We both looked away and pondered for a minute, then a nod in agreement.

Questions need answering and challenges meeting, both practically and philosophically. Masako, and the TREET team are undertaking the deepest effort to answer, accept and conquer them all. Once the project is finished it will most definitely inspire others to tackle new and unprecedented goals. Looking forward to the future.

The work of Masako Tominaga and her students can be found HERE.

E/V Nautilus LIVE

Okeanos LIVE

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