The Tree Health Centre at the Yorkshire Arboretum launches virtual reality (VR) experience, educating future generations on tree health threats.

As part of celebrations to mark National Plant Health Week, Askham Bryan College and the Tree Health Centre at the Yorkshire Arboretum have launched a new virtual reality experience for tree health training.

This Tree Health VR workshop you on a journey of discovery around a virtual Yorkshire Arboretum giving first-hand experience of the pesky Great Spruce Bark Beetle.

Promising to be like nothing else in the world – it uses cutting-edge technologies, puzzles and gamification to bring alive the significant economic damage caused to forests and woodlands by these beetles and demonstrates why good plant biosecurity is vital as we combat climate change.

The project was commissioned by Defra and brought together by the Yorkshire Arboretum, Askham Bryan College, VISR and Fera Science Ltd. and is part of a broader approach to educate and build awareness of tree health threats to future generations.

Background information

Virtual reality (VR) is an emerging technology becoming increasingly accessible with many applications for use in education and engagement. It offers participants a fully immersive experience to engage and explore the virtual world of plant health and biosecurity. The project has developed VR resources for a model pest (Great Spruce Bark Beetle) using a mixture of media from both field and laboratory materials.

VR is ideally suited for education about tree health issues as many harmful organisms are not known to occur in this country, some have restricted distribution in the UK, some are seasonal (e.g. broadleaf tree pests) and many produce very cryptic symptoms all of which digital technology can overcome and bring the problem alive.

This new VR experience has applications both in education for professionals but also raising awareness with the public about the importance and value of plant health and biosecurity.  It has the potential to reach out to a diverse range of audiences both nationally and internationally and engage with previously hard to reach audiences.

The technological fusion combines high-resolution bark scans, 3D modelling, LIDAR scans, and 360 panoramas, creating a visually captivating digital “Yorkshire Arboretum” for exploration and education.

This feasibility study has demonstrated that an engaging VR experience can be built for tree health. Evaluation over the summer will begin to realise its potential and applications for both raising awareness and education about plant health and biosecurity for schools, colleges, professionals, and the public.

Professor Nicola Spence, Defra Chief Plant Health Officer, said:

“Pests and diseases cause significant damage to trees, causing tree death in many cases as well as having a considerable impact on biodiversity.

“Using new and innovative technology such as virtual reality experiences will help educate and build awareness of tree health threats to future generations.”

This announcement follows the launch of the Plant Biosecurity Strategy for Great Britain in 2023 which set out a five-year vision for plant health, consisting of an action plan to secure national biosecurity, protect native species and drive economic growth. Today’s announcement represents our ongoing commitment to public funding of plant health research and development which will ensure our plant health regime incorporates and recognises the latest technical capabilities.

Dr Tim Whitaker, Askham Bryan College principal, said:

“Askham Bryan College is proud to be at the forefront of educational innovation in plant health with the launch of the Tree Health virtual reality experience. This cutting-edge technology offers a unique and immersive way to understand the vital importance of biosecurity and the impact of pests like the Great Spruce Bark Beetle on our ecosystems.”

Dr Charles Lane, Fera Plant Health and Biosecurity consultant, said:

“This technology has the potential to be a real game changer in connecting to and communicating with people about why and how we can protect the health of our plants.”

Dr John Grimshaw, MBE, Director of the Yorkshire Arboretum, said:

“The Tree Health Centre at the Yorkshire Arboretum was established to promote awareness of the multiple threats facing our trees, and it’s exciting to see information being delivered in this new way. We’re proud of being part of the team that is producing it.”