Tarsier Goggles, a virtual reality tool developed at Dartmouth College helps the user experience the optics of a dark-adapted primate visual system. Imagine that you live in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, you're a pint-sized //primate with enormous eyes that are roughly the same size as your brain, and you look a little like Gizmo from the movie, "Gremlins". You're a tarsier-- a nocturnal animal whose giant eyes provide you with exceptional visual sensitivity, enabling a predatory advantage. Both the virtual reality build and the team's findings published recently in Evolution: Education and Outreach are available for free online.
‘Tarsier Goggles illustrates the possibilities for how virtual reality can be applied to science education by providing students with a fun, interactive way to explore complex concepts.’Tarsier Goggles was developed by Samuel Gochman '18, while he was a student at Dartmouth and Nathaniel J. Dominy, the Charles Hansen Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth, who studies the evolution of primate sensory systems, in collaboration with the Dartmouth Applied Learning and Innovation (DALI) Lab, where students design and build technology.
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Gochman approached the DALI Lab with a problem: how could he change the human perception of our world by experiencing the tarsier's unique ocular adaptations. Through an iterative process, the DALI team explored different design solutions upon which Gochman and the team determined that a virtual reality experience would be best, as it is not only immersive but could also be used as a teaching tool in a classroom setting.
The open-access software, Tarsier Goggles, features three virtual learning environments-- "Matrix," "Labyrinth" and "Bornean Rainforest," which simulate how a tarsier's vision is different from a human's in terms of acuity, color vision and brightness. Bornean tarsiers have protanopia, a form of red-green colorblindness. In the virtual Bornean Rainforest, users can move through the forest, leaping and clinging to trees in "a dark, maze-like space that is practically opaque under human visual conditions but navigable as a tarsier, demonstrating the advantages of tarsier visual sensitivity," as described by the authors.
"Most ninth- and 10th-grade students in the U.S. learn about optics and natural selection, but the two topics are usually treated in isolation," says Dominy, who served as one of the co-authors. "The tarsier is an effective means of unifying both concepts. You have to understand optical principles to understand why natural selection would favor such enormous eyes in such a tiny predator."
At Dartmouth, Gochman focused in biological anthropology and human-centered design, and this project was one of the ways he applied these research interests. "I realized that most students' learning of natural selection was limited to diagrams, slideshows and models," says Gochman, who served as the lead author of the study. "Virtual reality offers an immersive experience for understanding some of the properties of the tarsier's vision, as a result of its adaptations. Tarsier Goggles is a science education tool that engages students in hands-on scientific concepts in physics, perceptual science and biology," he adds.
"The Tarsier Goggles project engaged my students first-hand in a learning experience, which could not have been achieved through any other medium," explains Marilyn Morano Lord '95, MALS '97, an anthropology and world history teacher at Kimball Union Academy, who also served as one of the co-authors of the paper.