An Orchestra in Cyberspace, Powered by Forests

The University of Tokyo Cyberforest Research Team and their 25-year Journey

By University of Tokyo

Cameras and recording equipment at the University of Tokyo Cyber Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

The beautiful birdsong that your grandfather heard when he was a child: wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could somehow travel back in time and actually listen to the birds he heard at that time of his life? 
Right now, from right where you are looking at this screen. A project that envisions a future where this is possible is "Cyberforest," an ongoing endeavor to monitor uninhabited forests in real time.

Recording equipment at the University of Tokyo Cyber Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

including uninhabited islands and areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, to observe and record the uninhabited natural environment. Recorded data is archived on the Internet and made available to the public; everyone is free to experience the wilderness in a virtual space.

The Natural World Beyond the Internet

The Cyberforest project uses robotic cameras installed in forests to capture audio and images, then distribute and store this information. 
The project is run by the Cyberforest Research Team at the University of Tokyo, and currently has live monitoring systems installed at eight locations around Japan, 

Mr. Kaoru Saito, representative of the University of Tokyo Cyber Forest and Professor of Natural Environment Studies, Graduate School of Frontier Sciences (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

Cyberforest was conceived at the University of Tokyo in 1995, the brainchild of Kaoru Saito, a forestry researcher and professor at the university until March 2021, and formed during the early days of the Internet.

University of Tokyo Chichibu Experimental Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

“I'm sure there are many who have had the experience of being asked about Japan by people from overseas and realizing, despite being Japanese, just how little they know about their own country. 

When you go abroad, you find that it is difficult to communicate with people without knowing things about where you are from. 

 In the same way, I thought, if the world is going to be connected through the Internet, we need to somehow “record” Japan. Based on this impulse, I began recording the sounds and scenes of natural forests in Japan, and posting these on the Internet.”

University of Tokyo Chichibu Experimental Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

Venturing into the University of Tokyo Chichibu Forest

Saito leads the way into the University of Tokyo Chichibu Forest in the Okuchichibu Mountains, north-west of Tokyo. 
 This is one of the few remaining pristine forests in the Kanto region and one where a variety of educational and research activities are conducted.

It is also where the second Cyberforest live monitoring system was installed, which has been observing the natural environment here for 25 years.

Mr. Akio Fujiwara (centre) and Mr. Kazuhiko Nakamura (back right) performing maintenance on the robot camera, taken in April 2012. (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

In 1995, when the Cyberforest project began, Saito developed a robotic camera with Akio Fujiwara, then a student at the University of Tokyo; 

Fujiwara would stay overnight in the Chichibu Forest to continue observations while manually running the generator to power the equipment every day.

Recording equipment at the University of Tokyo Cyber Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

The cameras and microphones, which were initially operated manually, now operate automatically using solar power, and the recording medium has evolved from videotape to live data transmission via a satellite internet connection. 

During the same period, Fujiwara became an assistant professor at the training forest and was responsible for the maintenance of the robotic camera, completing his PhD on the subject of “cyberforests.” 

The number of people becoming interested in the project and participating in it has also been gradually increasing. 

Representative of the University of Tokyo Cyber Forest, professor Kaoru Saito (right) and Mr. Kazuhiko Nakamura (left) (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

”We still have around 1,000 videotapes stored at the lab, and the data on the server grows by about six terabytes every year," says Kazuhiko Nakamura, an assistant professor at the University of Tokyo in the Forest Landscape Planning and Design Laboratory.

As a member of the Cyberforest Research Team, Nakamura is working on the use of natural environmental sounds in education.

University of Tokyo Chichibu Experimental Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

Listening for Sounds We Don’t Usually Hear

The Cyberforest project records sounds in nature that we would not commonly hear. These could be the sound of a red-headed woodpecker fighting for territory, the yelp of a Japanese deer, or the padding of a rabbit hopping through the snow. 

These sounds from the uninhabited forests can now be heard by anyone with an internet connection. This, Saito explains, is the real appeal of the Cyberforest.

University of Tokyo Chichibu Experimental Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

“It's hard to go out into the forest just to listen for the sound of a deer's steps, but with Cyberforest, you can hear them anytime you go online. 
Wouldn't it be nice to be able to experience the forest sounds and feel the presence of various creatures as you crawl under the covers and fall asleep at night? 

In the forest, you can hear all sorts of sounds, like the drumming of woodpeckers, the barking of flying squirrels, and the nighttime cry of a scaly thrush. It's nice to listen to the sounds of the forest as a shared experience; 

you can tell others, "I heard an owl hooting in the forest last night!””

By accessing the Cyberforest site, you can listen to the sounds of the forest at any given moment, whether you are in a city office or in a hospital room; 

you could even perhaps “go on a Cyberforest date” to the Chichibu Forest with your loved one who lives far away.

University of Tokyo Chichibu Experimental Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

The Natural Symphony of the Forest

The sound of raindrops hitting leaves, the midnight rustle of animals making their way through the undergrowth, the chorus of birds announcing the morning: tuning into Cyberforest can show just how lively an uninhabited forest can be. 

In a forest, you can never predict when and from which direction a sound will come from. Saito says that there are aural  coincidences in the forest that can go beyond his expectations.

University of Tokyo Chichibu Experimental Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

 “In the forest, you can't predict what's going to happen because there are so many different sounds coming from all angles. 
The unpredictability of what noise comes from where and when can be scary if you are in a real forest, but soothing if you listen to it in your room.

Whether you enjoy classical or rock music has a lot to do with your cultural background and tastes.
However, the sound of rain and wind touching trees and soil is heard all over the world—it’s a shared human experience. The sounds of nature can transcend generations and circumstances, and we can all share in its goodness.” 

University of Tokyo Chichibu Experimental Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

Cyberforests and their Place in the World

The sounds of nature provide people with more than just a sense of healing. Saito says that sound has a different effect on us to images, bringing a sense of reality to distant places.

“Nowadays, we can see nebulae hundreds of millions of light years away in photographs. Yet, the photos don't really give you a sense of reality. In the same way, if you see a forest in the distance, it is difficult to have a sense of reality about the place.
But, what if you could hear the sounds of that forest at the same time? Wouldn't you suddenly feel as if that distant forest was now right in front of you?” 

University of Tokyo Chichibu Experimental Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

“Let's say that a disaster strikes overseas. If you could not only see the images of the scene, but also hear the sounds in real time, you would be able to truly feel the reality of the situation as it unfolds. 
If you can feel the reality of events in distant places through sound, you may be able to perceive the entire earth as a series of events occurring all around you. I call such a feeling a ‘sense of globe.’”

University of Tokyo Chichibu Experimental Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

In addition to environmental concerns, we are faced with many challenges on a global scale. Sound is by no means the answer to everything; however, it is certain that the medium of sound can augment the digital experience, lending more of a sense of reality. 

There may be a future where we can share an enhanced sense of the issues we face on a global scale as a result.

Mountain road of the University of Tokyo Chichibu Experimental Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

“The important thing is to become aware of these issues through your own experience, rather than being told about them by someone else. 

You can collect all the data and evidence, or have someone tell you, “Look, here’s the problem,” but this is not always the best way to fully comprehend an issue. To move beyond this, it is important to engage the senses.Sound is something that doesn't require explanation. 

 I think that if more people could start thinking of problems in distant lands in terms of, “My neighbor’s in trouble”, we’d be kinder to each other and there’d be more people taking the initiative to help others out.”

Recording equipment at the University of Tokyo Cyber Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

Keeping a Record for an Uncertain Future

If sounds from all over the world are eventually archived for 100 or 200 years, we will be able to “travel” to any place in any time period we want. 
In practice, however, the hurdles to this are high. Although there are several projects overseas that monitor the sounds of the natural environment in collaboration with Saito and his team, there are almost no efforts to archive the sound data. 

Nevertheless, Saito and his team are pursuing their endless experiments, contending with a never-ending increase in recorded data. A question was posed to Saito: What will be the meaning of cyberforests to future society?

Representative of the University of Tokyo Cyber Forest, Mr. Kaoru Saito (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

“There is ongoing research on the psychological effects of sounds in the natural environment using cyberforests, as well as collaboration with ecological studies on birds. But, it is difficult to give a clear answer to the question, 
 "How can cyberforests help society?” The project started from a different perspective than one measured thinking of the short-term, and I don't know what it will come to mean in the future. 

 It' s precisely because I don't know that I feel it has potential, and that's probably why I've been doing this for over 25 years now.”

University of Tokyo Chichibu Experimental Forest (2021/2021)Original Source: 東京大学 サイバーフォレスト

In a society where profits and results are so important, it has become difficult to place value on the unknowable. 
However, even if the Cyberforest Project does not fully benefit us right now, it can reveal a glimpse of a world that humanity has not been able to enter. 

Would it be an exaggeration to say that such an experience touches upon the very essence of learning? 

So, now you know about them, tune in to a cyberforest, taking a moment to contemplate the charm of nature, listening to the sounds of the uninhabited wilderness…


Credits: Story

In cooperation with:
Cyberforest Research Team
Kaoru Saito Laboratory, The University of Tokyo

Photographer: Yusuke Abe (YARD)
Interview/Story: Masaya Yamawaka
Editor: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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