Have you ever wanted to have breakfast sitting across from a wolf or watch a saber-toothed cat roar from the comfort of your living room? These Ice Age animals have been extinct for more than 10,000 years, but scientists are bringing them back to life virtually.
The team developed animated three-dimensional models of some of the Ice Age animals found at the Rancho La Brea site, better known as the La Brea Tar Pits, in Los Angeles. Researchers from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, and the University of Southern California worked with a video game development company to build the models and adapt their work to augmented reality ( AR-enhanced) museum exhibits, as well as smartphone augmented reality experiences on platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. The study was published on March 2 in Electronic paleontology.
The team hopes that disseminating scientifically accurate models to a wide audience will encourage paleoart to become more rigorous. This genre, which includes paintings, sculptures and other artistic reconstructions of prehistoric life, is based on scientific evidence but may be subject to error. “Paleoart is a hypothesis about an extinct animal,” says study co-author Matt Davis, a paleontologist and exhibit developer at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. “The problem is that we don’t treat paleoart with the same rigor that we treat our other scientific research.” Co-author Emily Lindsey, paleontologist and director of the La Brea Tar Pits dig site, agrees. She describes paleoart as “this very cool imaginative space that straddles science. But it is almost never true that artists openly justify their scientific choices.
As an example, Lindsey cites the sculpture of a Columbian mammoth sinking into the lake pit outside the La Brea Tar Pits museum – a depiction that may perpetuate the misconception that asphalt pools were like quicksand. They were actually only a few centimeters deep, so the animals were caught in them like a fly caught in a sticky trap, not one drowning in a pot of honey. “It’s the most iconic image of the La Brea Tar Pits, and it’s been propagated thousands of times in popular culture,” Lindsey says.
The team initially set out to investigate how augmented reality can improve museum visitor engagement. “People showcase new technology in museums all the time,” Davis says, “but there’s actually very little research that shows people learn better in AR.” To put this technology to the test, scientists decided to set up several augmented reality-enhanced exhibits at the Tar Pits Museum. The exhibits would feature some of the hundreds of plants and animals whose fossils have been discovered in the tar pits over the past century. After conducting a small but promising AR pilot study, the researchers searched for more precise AR assets for larger study and immediately encountered a problem: scientifically accurate and peer-reviewed AR models of the flora and fauna of the Ice Age didn’t exist, says Lindsey. So they decided to make their own.
Researchers have recreated 13 popular Ice Age animals, including a giant wolf, a saber-toothed cat, an American lion and a Columbian mammoth, using low-polygon or “low-poly” graphics . A low-poly graphic is constructed from polygons, two-dimensional shapes, usually triangular, which are fused together to form a 3D figure.
Low-polygon or low-poly model of a western horse. Credit: “Designing Scientificly-Grounded Paleoart for Augmented Reality at La Brea Tar Pits”, by Matt Davis et al., in Electronic paleontology, article no. 25.1.a9. Published online March 2022 (CC BY 4.0)
Despite its blocky appearance, this style gives the models a few advantages. Low-poly graphics originated in the early days of 3D animation, when computer processing power was only a shadow of what it is today. Because they require little power, they are easy to render for a modern computer or smartphone. And thanks to their long history of use in video games, low-poly graphics have become a publicly accepted style of animation, says USC computer scientist and study co-author Bill Swartout.
Because low-poly graphics are inherently more abstract, they also reduce paleoart inaccuracies that arise when artists try to create something more photorealistic. In these situations, reconstructors have to make ill-informed guesses about things that fossils rarely tell us, like the texture or intricate patterns of fur. “What’s new about this approach is that it allows us to not get too involved in the details,” says Swartout.
Instead of guessing at unknowns, the team focused on incorporating the most recent paleontological discoveries about how these Ice Age animals looked and behaved. “We asked, ‘What’s the latest science on how giant sloths walked or what sound giant wolves might have made or how many humps a western camel would have had?’ “, Says Lindsey.
“Low-poly model of a Harlan’s Ground Sloth. Credit: “Designing Scientificly-Grounded Paleoart for Augmented Reality at La Brea Tar Pits”, by Matt Davis et al., in Electronic paleontology, article no. 25.1.a9. Published online March 2022 (CC BY 4.0)
“Paleoart can certainly spark curiosity,” says Mariah Green, museum and collections manager at Virginia Tech’s Museum of Geosciences, who was not involved in the study. “But being specific is important because it can communicate new scientific information about finds in the fossil record.”
The researchers are now using their models in AR-enhanced exhibits and continue to collect and analyze data on the impact of this technology on museum visitor engagement and learning. They’re still early in that process — those exhibits aren’t open to the general public yet — but according to Davis, augmented reality looks like a promising complement to existing techniques, as opposed to a replacement for traditional learning tools.
The team has also made their models available on social media so people can explore the animals at home. Co-author Ben Nye, director of learning sciences at USC, sees the value of AR outside of the museum context. “I think ultimately augmented reality will be a very impactful learning technology because you’re adding things to the real world,” he says. “It allows people to see themselves in other physical and social contexts.” For example, using Snapchat to drop a giant wolf into your living room could demonstrate its size and strength far more powerfully than a description in a textbook.
Davis hopes this study will help set a new scientific standard for all paleoart, from physical illustrations and sculptures to digital models. “We put all our research there,” he says. “We want people to be able to say, ‘Hey, that’s why this thing looks like this, and now I can make another even more accurate model.'”
As Green puts it, it’s “transparency at the end of the day.”