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Calling Gamers of All Ages— NASA Wants Your Help!

NASA invites gamers and citizen scientists to join them on virtual ocean research expeditions to map the world’s coral reefs.

Whether you are six or sixty-six, here is your chance to add NASA researcher to your resume. While most people think of NASA as mapping our pathway to the stars, they are also mapping the undersea world of coral reefs in an effort to better understand these threatened ecosystems and need your help. Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley have developed new instruments that can look below the ocean surface using techniques that were originally developed to look at stars. These “fluid-lensing” cameras use complex calculations to undo the optical distortions created by the water over coral reefs allowing the visualization of sea life with amazing clarity. 

Mounted on drones or aircraft the cameras have been deployed on expeditions to Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and elsewhere to collect 3D images of the ocean floor, including corals, algae and seagrass. However, the data alone do not tell the whole story of what’s happening to the corals beneath the waves. NASA is looking for those with an interest in ocean life to try NeMO-Net, a video game in which players identify and classify corals using the 3D images taken by the camera. Players view the images while virtually traveling the ocean on their own research vessel, the Nautilus. Principal investigator Ved Chirayath at Ames developed the neural network behind the free game, also called NeMO-Net, or the Neural Multi-Modal Observation and Training Network. Ultimately each player’s input will contribute to completing a global coral map.

“NeMO-Net leverages the most powerful force on this planet: not a fancy camera or a supercomputer, but people,” said Chirayath. “Anyone, even a first grader, can play this game and sort through these data to help us map one of the most beautiful forms of life we know of.”

On each virtual “dive,” players interact with real NASA data, learning about the different kinds of corals that lie on the shallow ocean floor while highlighting where they appear in the imagery. Aboard their virtual research vessel, players will be able to track their progress, earn badges, read through the game’s field guide, and access educational videos about life on the sea floor.

Players’ actions help train NASA’s Pleiades supercomputer at Ames to recognize corals from any image of the ocean floor, even those taken with less powerful instruments. The supercomputer “learns” from the coral classifications players make by hand, using machine learning techniques to classify on its own.

The more people who play NeMO-NET, the better the supercomputer’s mapping abilities become. Once it has been able to accurately classify corals from low-resolution data included in the game, the supercomputer will be able to map out the world’s corals at an unprecedented resolution. The map will enable scientists to better understand what is happening to the ocean’s corals and find ways to preserve them.

Coral reefs are among the most complex and diverse ecosystems on Earth. Teeming with what seems like an almost infinit variety of life, scientists estimate that these reefs provide homes for just as many species as a tropical rainforest. Rising ocean temperatures, pollution and ocean acidification are an ever increasing threat to the reefs. Scientists are seeking more data to understand the ways in which corals are adapting to these dangers.

Reefs also play an important part in combating many diseases that threaten people. Marine organisms such as sponges, mollusks and others that call reefs their homes have contributed to medicines used to treat viruses such as HIV and diseases such as cancer.

NeMO-Net is available for free on the Apple App store and is playable on iOS devices and Mac computers, with a forthcoming release for Android systems.

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