Researchers and designers in the United States have created more than a dozen scientific virtual models of Ice Age animals that enthusiasts can view in augmented reality (AR).
A collaborative team based in California investigating how AR affects learning in museums found that there weren’t yet any accurate Ice Age animals available to them in the virtual world.
So the team at La Brea Tar Pits, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, worked with designers at the University of Southern California (USC) to build the models in a blocky, low polygon style that was simple enough to be scientifically accurate and also run on regular phones with limited processing power.
“The innovation of this approach is that it allows us to create artwork in a virtual universe that meets the scientific level of accuracy,” said Dr. Williams Waters, chief technology officer of USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies.
The researchers hope it will also bring more attention to paleoart, an artistic discipline that aims to recreate what extinct animals might have looked like.
Paleoart has very important implications for how the public, and even scientists, understand fossil life, says Dr. Emily Lindsey, assistant curator at La Brea Tar Pits and senior author of the study.
According to Lindsey, scientists view much paleoart as an afterthought and do not subject it to the same rigorous scrutiny as other scientific studies. This can lead to very bad images of reproductions of extinct animals that have been used in popular media and academic publications for a long time.
“We consider paleoart to be an important part of paleontological research,” said Dr. Matt Davis, an exhibit developer at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. That’s why we published all the scientific research and artistic decisions that went into creating these models. This will enhance communication between other scientists and paleontologists and make it easier to consolidate the work of our team. “
Davis emphasizes that it is just as important to acknowledge that we know nothing about the appearance of these animals as it is to document what we do know. For example, we can accurately depict the shaggy fur of the Shasta ground sloth because paleontologists have found complete skeletons of this species with its fur and skin still well preserved. For mastodons, paleontologists have found only a few strands of hair—their thick fur is an artistic decision.
The team hopes that other paleontologists and scientists will look at their work and use it as a model for their own work on re-creating extinct species.
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The La Brea Tar Pits are located in urban Los Angeles, at a site where natural asphalt has seeped up from the ground for tens of thousands of years. In the past, animals became trapped in the tar and died, their bones being fossilized over time. Today, the site is famous for its deposits of Ice Age animals, particularly mammoths and mastodons, which are excavated in real-time by paleontologists.
The bones of long-lost animals from the tar pits are impressive and fascinating, and are on display in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; but the animals themselves remain dead and extinct. In an attempt to bring some of these creatures “back to life” for visitors to the museum, scientists and designers have got together to produce lifelike, 3D animations of the long-lost species through augmented reality (AR). Dr. Matt Davis and colleagues at the Natural History Museum and La Brea Tar Pits collaborated with researchers and designers at the University of Southern California (USC) to create more than a dozen new, scientifically accurate virtual models of the Ice Age animals that used to roam the area up to 38,000 years ago.
The team had originally set out to research how AR impacts learning in museums in general, but soon realized that there weren’t any accurate Ice Age animals in the metaverse yet. They decided to use the latest paleontological research, along with the newest design technologies, to make their own. In addition, they chose to publish all the research and detail that goes into reconstructing extinct species in the virtual world, so that others can appreciate and perhaps add to the paleoart animals in the metaverse. Their research is published today in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica.
According to study co-author Dr. William Swartout, Chief Technology Officer at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies: “The innovation of this approach is that it allows us to create scientifically accurate artwork for the metaverse without overcommitting to details where we still lack good fossil evidence.”
In some instances, when the skin and fur of an animal has been preserved, a great deal of detail is known about its appearance. For example, virtual Shasta ground sloths from La Brea can be depicted with long, shaggy fur because specimens with their skin and fur have been excavated. However, many fossils do not show this extent of detail and paleoartists have to make their own decisions about how the animals might have looked while they were alive. The researchers hope their article will bring more understanding about the processes involved in creating lifelike representations of extinct animals.
“Paleoart can be very influential in how the public, and even scientists, understand fossil life,” said Dr. Emily Lindsey, Assistant Curator at La Brea Tar Pits and senior author of the study. Although paleoart has an important role in improving people’s understanding of prehistoric animals, a lot of paleoart is treated as an afterthought and is not subjected to the same rigorous scrutiny as other scientific research. This can lead to particularly bad reconstructions and misrepresentations of extinct animals being propagated for generations in both popular media and academic publications.