In an “always-on” world, outdoor recreation gives us a chance to disconnect from our gadgets and reconnect with our natural surroundings. But over the past few years, parks and other natural spaces have been experimenting with ways our devices can actually enhance our outdoor experiences.
Tech-enabled outdoor activities are nothing new. Geocaching, for example, has been around since handheld GPS devices were introduced in the early 2000s. Since then, it’s grown into a global phenomenon, encouraging people to engage with nature, technology, and each other in a new way.
A more recent example of technology finding its way in nature breathes new life into an old concept––the interpretive trail.
What is an interpretive trail?
Traditionally, interpretive trails were like museums in the woods. They used physical displays to present stories and new perspectives on familiar topics––stimulating visitors’ interests and challenging their imaginations during a hike.
Digital interpretive trails expand upon this idea, trading real-life displays for ones that fit on our phones. Without the costs of building and maintaining actual displays out in the woods, interactive apps offer a new way to present educational information and historical context without the costs––helping visitors appreciate local ecology and understand their role in preserving it using the devices in their pocket.
Some parks are already using these tools to create these “hybrid” digital/natural experiences. Realizing their visitors were increasingly glued to their screens, The J.N Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida launched Discover Ding––an app designed to transition people away from their screens while hiking by providing in-app guided tours and other features that encourage real-life interactions with nature.
In the summer of 2016, a new digital interpretive trail idea came to life in Michigan’s Manistee National Forest. Combining trail markers, QR codes, smartphones, and botany, a “Digital Forest” was created to help Boy Scouts at the Owasippe Scout Reservation earn their merit badges while offering the general public an opportunity to learn more about the area.
Creating a “Digital Forest” for the Owasippe Scout Reservation
A year prior to the trail’s unveiling, scout leaders partnered with a local botany professor to devise a digital interpretative trail system that scouts could use to learn about plants and apply their knowledge in a natural setting.
A year later, the first legs of the Digital Forest were installed. It consists of a set of unique QR codes affixed to Berntsen’s Carsonite trail marking posts, which were installed around points of interest throughout the reservation. Armed with mobile devices, scouts enter the forest and search for these points of interest. Once a post is discovered, they simply scan the QR code and are instantly presented with in-depth information about nearby flora along with interactive quizzes to test their knowledge.
An example of an information page linked within the Digital Forest
Each trail post features a strip of four color-coded QR codes––blue for Webelos, green for Boy Scouts, red for the general public and black to access a map. Information pages are linked via a distributed network.
A trail marker with QR codes
In addition to information and action items for scouts, each trail post includes a “You Are Here” tool, letting users know exactly how far they are from points of interest. For those with a cell signal, a map tool can also be accessed for a broader view of the area.
A map feature for on-site orientation and navigation
The Digital Forest isn’t just for use at camp. All features can be accessed at home as well, allowing for off-site research and sharing with friends and parents.
Advantages, efficiency, and accomplishments
The “Digital Forest” is more than just an interesting idea for bringing technology into nature. It accomplishes a number of important goals that brought cost efficiencies, new partnerships, and greater user engagement among scouts. Here’s a breakdown of some specific achievements that resulted from the project:
• Bring Your Own Device (BTOD) design reduced overall costs. By taking advantage of devices users already have, the costs of loss or damage are significantly lower than physical signage and displays.
• Fewer opportunities for vandalism. Displaying content on a user’s own device means the only physical objects at risk of vandalism are the trail markers.
• Multiple QR codes per post lower costs. Instead of installing separate posts for Webelos, Boy Scouts and the general public, each can be accessed from the same post.
• Raspberry PI3 WIFI transmitters eliminate data costs. These WIFI transmitters are configured as captive access points in the woods, eliminating data costs and providing data coverage in remote areas of the reservation not covered by cellular signals.
Feedback and impressions
After the first year of use, camp rangers praised the project and even discovered an extra use the designers hadn’t planned for. Since each post displays a unique number, regular park-goers can use them to pinpoint their locations when calling in an injury or other problems to rangers. Using the map, rangers now know exactly where to go, saving valuable time en route to locations.
The council behind the Digital Forest plans to expand the project this year by adding local geology information to complement existing botanical pages. They’ve also proposed a similar trail concept to the local county forest preserve district for use on their trails.
Finding the right trail marker
The digital components of the forest rely entirely on the strength and resilience of the physical trail markers installed throughout the reservation. Knowing high-quality equipment was crucial, the development team chose Berntsen’s Carsonite Dual-Sided Markers (CIB-380) to ensure points of interest were clearly marked to scouts and other visitors.
Constructed of continuous glass fiber and marble-reinforced thermosetting composite, these markers are resistant to vandalism, impact, ultraviolet light, ozone and hydrocarbons, retaining their strength down to -40ºF. With easy installation which rarely requires digging, these markers enable the team to expand the trail system relatively easily without needing large crews and heavily equipment.
The Digital Forest offers an example of how traditional products can be reimagined to serve a variety of new purposes.
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