NASA is calling citizen scientists of all ages to help map endangered coral — while sheltering in place. Instead of endlessly livestreaming TV shows during the pandemic, you could help program a supercomputer to classify and ultimately save ocean life with a fun app called NeMO-Net.

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The Neural Multi-Modal Observation and Training Network, also known as NeMO-Net, is a new gaming app. Players use 3D images to identify and classify coral while virtually cruising the seas on a research vessel called the Nautilus. The end goal is for all the players’ input to be pooled together, producing the highest resolution global map of coral reefs. Scientists will use this map to figure out how to better protect shallow marine systems.

Related: Newly released video game challenges players to survive the climate apocalypse

Researchers at NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley are improving fluid-lensing, a way to look through the ocean’s rippled surface. Through complex calculations, they’ve found an algorithm to correct for the way water absorbs and intensifies light, which distorts images and makes them hard to read. Scientists at Ames’ Laboratory for Advanced Sensing are refining two fluid-lensing technologies: FluidCam and MiDAR, the Multispectral Imaging, Detection and Active Reflectance instrument. But the resulting images still need discerning human eyes to correctly classify them.

“NeMO-Net leverages the most powerful force on this planet: not a fancy camera or a supercomputer, but people,” said principal investigator Ved Chirayath at NASA Ames Research Center. “Anyone, even a first grader, can play this game and sort through these data to help us map one of the most beautiful forms of life we know of.”

On each virtual dive, players will interact with real NASA data. Their actions will help train NASA’s Pleiades supercomputer to identify different coral on the ocean floor from images of varying quality. The more input Pleiades gets from players, the better it will be able to use machine learning to classify corals on its own. Players will learn about different kinds of coral, earn badges and watch educational videos about creatures that dwell on the sea floor.

Surprisingly, scientists have mapped Mars and Earth’s moon in great detail, but only 4% of the ocean floor is mapped. With the new fluid-lensing technology — and the help of a homebound population — NASA hopes to change that.


Image via NASA