Video has been used to record scientific phenomena for decades. Such recordings may simply serve to document an important event such as a volcanic eruption or give a glimpse of a rare animal, even one that no longer exists. For example, thanks to audio-visual records, we can watch footage of now extinct animals such as the Ivory Billed Woodpecker (1935) and the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger (1933). Wildlife recordings were not only made by scientists, but by naturalists, resource managers, and professional photographers. Over time, researchers expanded the use of video to record experimental subjects—especially in fields such as animal behavior and child development—in an attempt to capture ephemeral behavior and transform it into more objective, quantitative information.
In a few cases, researchers have used video to create the experimental material presented to study subjects. For example, a study of wild marmosets used film footage of laboratory-trained monkeys performing tasks (opening a lid or a drawer) to see if the wild animals could learn by watching a video.The researchers made an “instructional video” with the laboratory footage of trained marmosets and set up a monitor in the field to display the video to wild marmosets. Then they tested the wild marmosets to see if they adopted any of the techniques shown in the video. You can watch the video here to see what happened.
The Heider-Simmel animation is another example of how video might be used in research. I’ve written before (Bully Triangles and Terrified Circles) about the fascinating animation video used by psychologists Heider and Simmel in their research on people’s propensity to anthropomorphize everything they see, including inanimate objects. The researchers showed the video to participants and assessed their reactions to it. If you’ve not seen this animation, I’ve embedded it below. It’s almost impossible not to make up a story about (or assign intent to) the geometric objects in the film clip.
Prior to digital cameras, personal computers, and editing software, however, film-based research required expensive equipment and technical skills to capture and process footage useful for research purposes. Consequently, video was not a common research tool, particularly in my field of ecology. How things have changed! The use of video in scientific research to record physical, chemical, and biological phenomena has exploded in recent years, and researchers in many disciplines are discovering video. Scientists now have access to affordable digital cameras that can be used to conduct research in various environments, such as underwater to measure fish populations or inside a colony of leafcutter ants.
Despite the recent uptick in use of video to conduct research, there are not a lot of technical guidelines or how-to manuals. Most scientists are working out the filming, editing, and analytical details themselves. For example, a student, Austin Taylor (Bodega Marine Laboratory Spring Class, 2012), studied the effect of wave action on the behavior of the intertidal black turban snails, which he filmed with a GoPro Hero 2 camera attached to a DIY tripod designed withstand waves. In addition to figuring out how to process the video to extract data on snail movement, he and his coauthors had to design and fabricate a unique camera mount to withstand the force of waves striking their intertidal field site.
You can read his technical paper, “Underwater video reveals decreased activity of rocky intertidal snails during high tides and cooler days”, published in Marine Ecology, to see details of camera setup and post-processing of the footage to quantify snail movements. Below is an example of the film he captured during the research:
As more researchers become aware of the possibilities of video, we’ll likely see more researchers experimenting with how video can be used to attain new research insights.