MBARI Makes Digital Deep-Sea Guide Public, Providing Unprecedented Access to Ocean Images

April 5, 2016 | ,   | Contact: M. Daniel Decillis

The MBARI Deep-Sea Guide uses a specially designed Video Annotation and Reference System to categorize and make accessible thousands of images, such as the Tomopteris nisseni above (image © MBARI).

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) has been recording underwater video with remotely operated vehicles for over 25 years. Its ever-growing library of underwater footage, which now exceeds 24,000 hours, has long been a tremendous resource for researchers. The challenge, however, has always been to comb through the vast data set for relevant images. Thanks to a specially developed software package, this resource is now much more accessible to researchers and the public alike.

“We collect a tremendous amount of information,” said Judith Connor, MBARI Director of Information and Technology Dissemination. “Being able to apply digital image processing to our video footage, along with the collective input and expertise of researchers at MBARI and at other institutions worldwide, has really allowed us to make this information accessible in a way that hasn’t been done before.”

The MBARI Deep-Sea Guide allows users to search for specific deep-sea animals (by their common or Latin names), groups or animals, and geologic features. The results can include not only images and descriptions, but range information, depths, and times of year when the animals or features were observed.

“It’s a way of pulling together a lot of relevant information in a very accessible interface,” said Connor. “This provides more information to researchers and is an unprecedented educational resource.”

It’s all made possible through the Video Annotation and Reference System (VARS), a software interface and database system that provides tools for describing, cataloging, retrieving and viewing the visual, descriptive, and quantitative data associated with MBARI’s deep-sea video archives.

MBARI is developing automated image recognition to help sift through the underwater video and identify objects successfully tracked over multiple video frames. This automated video ‘triage’ is followed up by human analysis and classification, which are added to the database according to the VARS protocols.

“It’s the collective expertise of the research community that enhances the value of this resource tremendously,” said Connor. “The image detection algorithms are becoming more advanced every year, but what these are primarily allowing us to do is focus the collective expertise of our research community on areas of interest. The Deep-Sea Guide is very much a collaborative effort.”

Until late 2015, the Guide was available only to researchers. MBARI hopes that its increased accessibility will make it into a valuable resource for educators as well. Although the Deep-Sea Guide library is primarily focused on the Monterey Bay area, MBARI actively collaborates with marine research institutions around the globe, particularly at the University of Hawaii.

“The Guide is a living system which is continually being refined, expanded, and improved,” said Connor. “We hope that researchers in California and elsewhere will help VARS continue to evolve into a truly global resource.”

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