Augmented Reality Dinosaurs!

Zoo-AR Completes First Augmented Reality / Animatronic Dinosaur Install in USA

Did you know Tyrannosaurus Rex had feathers? Or that many of the dinosaurs we once called “cold blooded lizards” are actually more like endothermic, homeothermic, tachymetabolic birds? If you answered “Nope!” to any of these, it’s ok! We didn’t either until just recently.

On February 20th, 2013, Zoo-AR completed it’s first major Augmented Reality installation at The Witte Museum, in association with their “Dinosaurs Unearthed; Bigger. Better. Feathered.” exhibit. In addition to being our first major install, it’s also the first install of it’s kind in the country. Who’da thunk San Antonio would be on the cutting edge of technology? It is. We are.

Witte Breaks Attendance Record for Dinosaurs Unearthed Augmented Reality

If you’ve been following our progress at all with Augmented Reality, you know we started talking publicly about what we’ve been up to about 6 months ago. We showed our technology to some of the largest Zoos and Aquariums in the business, and they were incredibly impressed. As a result of those endeavors, we’ve started developing Augmented Reality Dinosaurs for a company based out of Vancouver, Canada called Dinosaurs Unearthed.

Jeff from Zoo-AR at the AZA 2012 Show in Phoenix

Dinosaurs Unearthed saw our technology at the AZA 2012 show, and mentioned they had a museum installation coming up in San Antonio in February of 2013. We told them we were interested, and on November 13th they introduced us to the group at The Witte Museum planning the exhibit. By January 13th we had a signed contract, and a little more than 1 month to create the experience!

Creating Dinosaurs is actually pretty fun!

Creating dinosaurs is actually pretty fun work. It’s a mixture of artistic license and scientific fact. Typically, the former is used a bit more freely than the latter. While we wanted our dinosaurs to look fun and exciting, we also made a commitment to ourselves not to sacrifice scientific truths for the romanticized creatures we see in movies and on television. We spent days researching the dinosaurs we were creating, and often left many nearly completed dinosaurs on the cutting room floor after discovering they had a fatal flaw that may not have been scientifically accurate.

3D Model Texturing of Dinosaurs Unearthed

We built all of our own 3D dinosaurs from scratch. First we model and texture the dinosaurs in our 3D packages, where we use front and side view pictures to layout how the dinosaur would look in a normal diagram like pose. From there, we can setup a simple “puppet” system that we call the “rig”. It’s kind of like a visual program that allows us to control different parts of the dinosaur when we move certain controls. Once it’s all setup, we can begin to animate the dinosaur. We base our animation on a variety of research from things like footprints to bone fossils. Knowing the physiology of an animal can really influence your understanding of how it moved, how certain joints worked, etc. Then, finding footprints of these animals also helps, as it helps us know not only how they moved step by step, but also things like migration patterns, or herding habits. Armed with this information, and a little bit of that artistic license mentioned earlier, we animated dinosaurs like there was no tomorrow. By the end of it, we had created over 15 dinosaurs with more than 60 different custom animations.

3D Dinosaur Augmented Reality photos and work in progress

Happening nearly parallel to this process was us creating Augmented Reality targets for visitors to actually point their devices at. We pride ourselves in developing AR targets that look not only artistically beautiful, but that are functionally perfect as well. Our tracking technology is the best in the business, and we spend countless hours perfecting each and every target to be sure it tracks in the most extreme circumstances. It’s part of our secret sauce.

In addition to the marker creation, our 2D graphic artists created a variety of GUIs (graphical user interfaces) and art for the rest of the application, to add that polished look so many of our products have.

Creating Markers and AR Targets

On the software side, the final step was also one of the most difficult, and that was programming all these different aspects into a single app that could be placed on iPads for use in the exhibit. This step includes incorporating all of the functionality and animations the dinosaurs were built to have, and making the GUI elements and user interaction combine to create a really great user experience.

The applications are currently available on both iOS and Android, and you can find them by searching either store for “Witte AR”.

So, totally separate from the development of the application was the hardware solutions that we provided to The Witte Museum for this exhibit. Because not everyone owns a smart phone, and because not everyone brings their iPads and Galaxy Note 8’s to each museum they visit, we decided to supply iPads so that every visitor could share the experience.

We developed a custom solution after sourcing a variety of parts, and created a pretty solid “AR Station” where visitors could pick up an iPad, experience the dinosaur and all the information embedded in the application, and then simply put the iPad down and walk away. This was a huge undertaking, especially for a company whose background was not in hardware fabrication.

Installation Photo of Dinosaurs Unearthed Augmented Reality

Because these devices were being installed in a kid-friendly museum, we had to use hardware that was tamper-proof, shock-proof, very resilient and most of all safe. Moving pieces that caused danger or the potential for harm were immediately thrown out. Even down to the last moment, we had to paint the stands we received from Italy black the day before the exhibit went live. Yeah, we’re particular like that.

So far, The Witte Museum has broken a 78 year attendance record, and had nearly 50,000 visitors in March. And it’s only been 2 months.

Interactive Content Dinosaurs Unearthed

As we develop more dinosaur content, we intend to continue to update the exhibit down at The Witte Museum. In fact, we pushed a major update about 3 days ago that totally re-imagines all of the environments for the dinosaurs. If you haven’t been in a few weeks, make sure to go check it out again - chances are the content will have changed!

We’re continuing down the long road of “high educational value, low return on investment” applications that are Augmented Reality. We believe in what we’re doing, and hope others do too. Just as we originally set out to do, other people’s reactions to what we’re doing continue to engage, entertain, and inspire us. We’ve got a lot more up our proverbial sleeves, so stay tuned to what we’re up to and continue to follow us on this journey!

PS - Here's a quick Behind The Scenes video we shot documenting part of the process!

For more information on this installation, and how to get Augmented Reality into your museum or zoo, please get in touch! Contact Us.

- Posted by Jeremy Kenisky.