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  • Birds 'Captured' Going Wild in Craig's Backyard
Apr 2007
BERKELEY, Calif., April 24, 2007 -- Craig Newmark, founder of the popular craigslist community Web sites, is hosting a robotic video camera project from the back deck of his home, which overlooks Sutro Forest in San Francisco. The new online game, launched this week at, allows players to access a remotely controllable robotic video camera to take live photos of and classify visiting wild birds.
Inset from the CONE Sutro Forest interface, an online game that allows players to control the movements of a remote camera. Players earn points by snapping photos of birds and identifying them. The game, at, is free and open to the public. (Photo courtesy of Ken Goldberg)
The technology behind the game, called Collaborative Observatories for Natural Environments-Sutro Forest (CONE Sutro Forest), was conceived by Ken Goldberg, a University of California at Berkeley professor of engineering and coprincipal investigator of the project, and Dezhen Song, assistant professor of computer science at Texas A&M. With funding from the National Science Foundation, Goldberg, Song and their students have been working for several years on systems that allow "collaborative control" of a camera's movements by multiple users over the Internet.

"CONE Sutro Forest uses a collaborative control interface that allows dozens of people to simultaneously share remote control of the pan-tilt-zoom video camera," said Goldberg. "It introduces highly responsive algorithms that automatically compute the optimal camera viewpoint to satisfy dozens of simultaneous players, including experts and amateurs. We've also included a new relay server to make the video stream faster and more responsive, a database of images and biological information about the wild birds likely to be spotted in the Sutro Forest, and a scoring system that rewards users who find and identify unusual birds."

CONE Sutro Forest screen-capture image. At left is a dark-eyed junco. The bird on the right is either a house sparrow or a chestnut-backed chickadee, "but it is hard to say for sure without seeing its front," said craigslist founder Craig Newmark, the birds' host.
For instance, using a computer mouse, a registered user of the Web site may direct the camera to point at a jay and snap a photo. However, if most other players direct the camera elsewhere, the system will favor the popular choice. Players can see who else is logged on and try to beat them to the best pictures. The system waits until the photo is classified consistently by at least two players and assigns points according to how rare the bird is. Players with higher scores get more influence over where the video camera is positioned.

The researchers said they hope the project will attract a variety of players, including video gamers who have never tried birdwatching and seasoned birdwatchers, and that it will increase public awareness of how technology can help natural observation.

Newmark added, "It's also fun to see an educational game based on what's happening outside my window."

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