what / why / who


Virtual Forest is a project to bring a live digital feed of forest imagery to the VR world. Virtual Forest allows you to immersively track the seasons using 360 photography and time lapse movies of a forest in the North Eastern US. All media can be viewed in a regular browser, or on a mobile device supporting gyroscope feedback. For a complete immersive experience Virtual Forest supports Google Cardboard and Samsung GearVR. Additional support for VR headsets such as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift is provided through the A-frame framework. Sadly, the project has been discontinued as I moved on to a different position and continent. Immersive summary videos remain online.


The project gives everyone the experience of tracking the seasons in a North Eastern deciduous forest through telepresence. It allows for leaf peeping from a distance and visualizes ecological processes using timelapse movies, speeding up an otherwise slow process. The images gathered will also support research efforts in understanding the timing of changes to the canopy structure. Above all, I hope Virtual Forest will inspire people to venture outdoors and explore a forest in real life as Virtual Forest remains a proxy for what is a wonderful world.


Virtual Forest is a project of Koen Hufkens. I'm a former Research Associate at Harvard University. My research focuses on understanding the relation between climate (change) and seasonal variability in vegetation growth. I'm also a maker, software developer and interested in combining ecological research with emerging technologies. Feel free to post comments regarding the project or individual images on my twitter feed.

The Science

Seasonal changes in plants as recorded by the Virtual Forest project are referred to as plant phenology. Plant phenological processes are highly responsive to year-to-year variation in weather as well as longer-term changes in climate. This sensitivity to short and long-term changes makes phenology a key indicator of the biological impacts of global change. But, phenology also plays an under-appreciated role in how ecosystem influence the atmosphere by absorbing carbon through photosynthesis. By influencing the seasonality of plant carbon uptake and transpiration (carbon loss), phenology mediates many vegetation feedbacks to the Earth system. Virtual Forest provides data with which will advance understanding of the fundamental importance of phenology as both a leading indicator of the biological impacts of global change, and as a critical factor in regulating feedbacks between terrestrial ecosystems and the Earth system.
[educational material can be found here. While I refer to my academic CV for a more in depth analysis and discussion.]


I'm indebted to the Harvard Forest staff for helping me with practical issues and the hosting arrangement. My academic research based upon Virtual Forest or related data is funded through the National Science Foundation’s Macro-system Biology Program (award EF-1065029).