Visual technology that transformed our understanding of the America's Cup could be coming to help landowners and rural communities grasp the mind-numbing science underpinning enforced agriculture land use changes.
The first technology from a partnership between Animation Research, the Kiwi company that revolutionised sports broadcasting, and AgResearch drew strong interest at Fieldays at Mystery Creek as farmers got to see the future of their properties with the click of a mouse.
On screen was "Hyper Farm" — designed by AgResearch and using Animation Research's world-beating visualisation technology. It showed landholders what their properties would look like under different land uses and how a land use change would affect science metrics such as water quality, carbon sequestration and biodiversity.
And importantly, how their finances would look after a land use change.
The computer tool is an evolving design by AgResearch scientists Dr Seth Laurenson and Dr Remy Lasseur. It's part of a $10 million MBIE-funded programme to research New Zealand's bioeconomy in the digital age in order to enable transformational change to the agriculture sector and supply chains.
It's very early days for the project, which still has a year of development ahead before commercialisation. But the interest from Fieldays visitors, and other tech exhibitors such as business financial software company Xero which want to get involved, suggest the partnership is on to a winner, said an AgResearch spokesman.
AgResearch and the land-based science sector had gathered a huge amount of data to support farming and research over the years, Laurenson told the Herald. Due to sensor technology , that information gathering was set to continue at pace.
The Hyper Farm concept was born when AgResearch scientists got involved with the water limit-setting process in Canterbury and other parts of the country, he said.
"We noticed the public would be engaged in the whole methodology for setting those settings and for the community outcomes, but really couldn't grasp the complexity of the science.
"They couldn't visualise it and they couldn't simplify the complexity. We thought that if we could visualise what was happening on a farm and we got the ability to change land use or activities on that farm we'd have a far better understanding than if we were looking at tables.
"We thought pictures are really important in this story. And we thought, who does pictures really well?"
It's not just individual farmers who want to understand the effects of new limits being imposed on them, Laurenson said.
"When deciding what environment limits we want to place on a catchment, more and more of those decisions are involving the community which is really good.
"We noticed the public would come in (to meetings) and they'd be bamboozled by a lot of the information and not understand say, how a nitrogen number or outcome related to a biodiversity outcome.
"It was far too complex — for science as well as the public. People would turn up once and never again. We lost that voice of the community. They didn't have a voice at the table that would allow them to express an opinion because they didn't understand the science."
Animation Research, founded and owned by Ian Taylor, was excited by the project, Laurenson said.
"They see a real niche where science and media are coming together to solve a real problem the New Zealand farmer is facing ... how to farm within the boundary conditions of my property? Not within Southland or Waikato but actually on my farm?"
A simple example where the computer programme could help a farmer was in reducing nitrogen loss on parts of the property. Physically changing the land use to try to alleviate the problem could be highly costly and may throw up another problem such as a sediment issue.
Changing the land use on screen — for example by planting grasses and natives on the problem area — identifies likely outcomes because the on-screen changes react with the AgResearch science metrics underneath to calculate the effect.
"They can see a future before the soil has been turned. We see that as being far more objective but it's also to open minds to possibilities," Laurenson said.
"Essentially we are trying to allow the user to interact with their design for the land. I don't think we are trying to solve the problems — we are just trying to bring people on to that first platform of change, so they don't get isolated."
He says the prototype tool which debuted at Fieldays is "very simple". Work has started on a second generation tool of greater complexity and with more land use diversity. Commercialisation details such as the cost of the tool hadn't been worked on yet.
AgResearch with Crown Research Institute collaborators Scion, Landcare Research and Environmental Science and Research, won the supreme site award for best stand at Fieldays.