Candid camera that speeds up change

13th September 1996 at 01:00
Observation is crucial to learning about nature, so a new logging set-up for video could be good news, says Roger Frost.

Every day flowers open and close as the sun moves across the sky. Yes, it's an average piece of science, but imagine if it was really easy to point a camera at things, and leave it to take a picture every few seconds.

Suppose you put on your science specs at this point. These help your inquisitiveness, giving you a licence to ask questions, such as: What path does the sun take in the sky? Or: How does the sunlight affect the flower?

Do goldfish sleep? Do birds have meal times? What happens when you turn your back? Do the kids snigger as you write on the board? These questions a camera will find some answers to.

Paranoia aside, nature speeded up on film is the stuff of TV programmes. But now a system developed by Abington Partners for science supplier Philip Harris, puts a versatile video camera in the lab.

This computer-based system, called Video Logging, will film for weeks, using the computer's hard disc instead of video tape. Cleverly, it will take a snap only when, say, the flower moves or something happens - so you don't have loads of footage of a motionless scene. More than this, it can record the light level or the temperature at the same time.

So take some cress seeds, and point the camera at them for many days and nights. Then watch your movie - you'll see the stem, root and leaves appear, see them twist towards the light during the day, and see them twist back at night. The seedlings almost dance to the rhythm of day and night. As a science feature, this short film about cress seeds will not win awards, but with your science shades on, it will make you wonder whether plants respond to the light, or the heat or both. With this system, you can find out.

As one of its first users, Dr Richard Wells, head of biology at Prior Park College in Bristol, really appreciates how it can speed up changes that happen over long periods. If physics is the subject where things happen too fast, then biology is the subject where they happen too slowly.

He says that they recorded how fast a locust breathed in different air mixtures, and watched bacteria growing on agar plates. They could also connect the camera to their microscope not just to film cells growing but to simply show an image on the computer screen. This added-value feature - where a class can "see" what you mean when you say "that white cell" - will attract biologists like bananas attract fruit flies.

Ideas for projects pop up all the time, like using it to see if there's something in a nettle that helps it outgrow other plants. They hope to find out by filming seeds growing with and without nettles. When I visited, Dr Wells had filmed a sea anemone over the previous 24 hours, and we could see how this pretty but soporific creature made rhythmic movements of its tentacles, and occasionally spat out gravel. We didn't know why, but Richard Wells adds that this sort of work is full of surprises: "The research capabilities here for studying animal behaviour, I think, are fantastic, but what you can't predict is what you're actually going to see."

In detail, Video Logging is a Pentium 75 computer with software, video camera, CD-Rom, video-capture electronics and colour printer. With 8 megabytes of memory, it's under-specified for a Windows 95 system but at the front of the machine, where a spare disc drive might sit, is a handy panel of sockets for camera, sensors and electronic balance.

A clever solenoid (electronic switch) allows the system to momentarily switch on a lamp at night, so that those cress seeds can smile for the camera. Great idea, great smile, but if you want to record the light level at the same time you can't just plug a light probe into the computer - you have to plug the probe into a sensor box, which plugs into another box and then into the computer. Is that cumbersome or what?

Abington Partners might have offered this as a computer upgrade, but anyone who has tried to upgrade a computer will know this pitfall. So Video Logging is supplied complete with a price tag of - brace yourself - Pounds 3,950. If there's a technical weakness it's that movies on computers aren't clear and don't even fill the screen. These movies would look better if they weren't restricted to 256 colours (computer screens can show thousands).

The software, with names like Visiview and Visistore, has an impressive set of features for a first edition. You can play your movies, watch a time graph of the light level, or nudge frames back or forth. You can also store single frames, label them, take measurements from them, and count cells with clicks of the mouse. If you're a feature-hungry type, there's some well considered fodder here.

I'm thrilled by the possibilities of this amazing tool. But to prove its uniqueness, using sensors with it is essential, because there are already cameras which do much of this. I'm bothered by the cost because the same money buys a class a set of sensors which is more of an imperative. And I'm wondering if this, like the video camera and ice-cream maker I once bought, will turn out to be a passing infatuation.

Scientists, like those at Prior Park, who are generating questions that engage students in research, are likely buyers anyway. But those of us short of cash will be stuck with the questions and no means to answer them, like how fast does fruit go mouldy, how does paint dry and how much do we doodle in staff meetings?

Contacts Philip Harris, Lynn Lane, Shenstone, Lichfield, Staffs, WS14 0EE. Tel: 01543 480077. Fax: 01543 480068. Video Logging: Pentium 75 MHz multimedia video computer with 8 megabytes of memory, CD-Rom, speakers, Canon colour inkjet printer. Software: Windows 95, Video logging, Datadisc Pro, Datamass Pro. PricePounds 3,950. Accessories and sensor kits available. Age range: 15+

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