Novelties - Foliage Field Guides for Cellphones - NYTimes.com:
'The traditional way to identify an unfamiliar tree is to pull out a field guide and search its pages for a matching description. One day people may pull out a smartphone instead, photographing a leaf from the mystery tree and then having the phone search for matching images in a database.
A team of researchers financed by the National Science Foundation has created just such a device — a hand-held electronic field guide that identifies tree species based on the shape of their leaves, said Peter N. Belhumeur, a professor of computer science at Columbia and a member of the team.
The field guide, now in prototype for iPhones and other portable devices, has been tested at three sites in the northeastern United States, including Plummers Island in Maryland and Central Park in New York, said W. John Kress, a research botanist and curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, who is also on the research team. The computer program compares the leaf snapshot to a library of leaf images.
“We believe there is enough information in a single leaf to identify a species,” he said. “Our brains can’t remember all of these characteristics, but the computer can.”
With a nicely written conclusion:
"...Matthew Brown, supervisor of the soil, water and ecology lab at the Central Park Conservancy, thinks that ID programs can be useful. “If people are walking through the park and they come upon a tree that’s not in their field guide,” he said, “they can snap a photo, send it in, and get the name back and find out more information.”
But he believes in traditional education, too. “People don’t have to take botany for four years, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the value of learning information. If a computer can figure it all out, we can get lazy.”