NASA has created a new video game with a purpose.
In NeMO-NET, players use their iPhone, iPad, or computer to virtually travel into the ocean’s depths, identifying and classifying all the corals they encounter. The images are taken from real life ocean expeditions, and playing the game will help scientists create a better map of the world’s coral that can help with conservation efforts before reefs get wiped out.
For the past several years, scientists from NASA’s Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley have observed the world’s oceans, using new tools that correct for the optical distortion of the water to display a clearer, more detailed look below the ocean’s surface. By mounting the new instruments on drones and aircrafts, the scientists have obtained 3D images of corals, algae, and seagrass on the ocean floor over the course of expeditions to Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa. But now, the scientists have to sort through all that data, which is where the game comes in.
In NeMO-Net, you can explore the footage from these expeditions, learning about different types of corals and highlighting where they appear. Along the way, you can earn badges and track your progress. The game has ambient soundtrack and sharp graphics, which is nice in a time where we could all use a little soothing downtime. And it’s also useful for conservation: All the data the users generate by playing the game helps train a NASA supercomputer to identify corals on its own.
“NeMO-Net leverages the most powerful force on this planet: not a fancy camera or a supercomputer, but people,” said NASA principal investigator Ved Chirayath, who developed the neural network behind the game, in a statement. “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.”
The game comes at an important time. Oceans are home to as many species as tropical rainforests. They’re also crucial to the health of people and the planet because they’re an important source of food and they help regulate carbon in the atmosphere, among other important functions.
Yet they’re also under threat from pollution, overfishing, and rising ocean temperatures, and acidification. And coral reefs are some of the most threatened ecosystems. Just this month, researchers found that the entire Great Barrier Reef is in the midst of an unprecedented bleaching event that’s wiping out coral in all corners of the ecosystem.
Though we know that the world’s oceans are in danger, we don’t have a detailed map of of them. The work being done by NASA could help create one that functions as a baseline for coral health. That could in turn help us understand what parts of the ocean need the most help, both for the sake of biodiversity conservation and the billions of people who live near the coast and depend on the sea.
“Coral reefs are a critical part of our life support system,” Sylvia Earle, legendary conservationist and collaborator on the project, said in a statement. “They define us, they define the ocean, they define our planet.”
You can download the game for free for your Mac, iPhone, or iPad.