Ultimate Dinosaurs at the Royal Ontario Museum

Jan 11, 2013

Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana, A dinosaur exhibit enhanced with Augmented Reality at the Royal Ontario Museum

Dinosaur exhibits are always enjoyable at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), and the current one is no exception.  Billed as the “Ultimate dinosaur experience” the exhibit is a world premiere of dinosaurs from the former mega-continent of Gondwana.  These are dinosaurs that have been excavated in the past 20 years in the southern hemisphere.  The exhibit is curated by Canadian scientists, and includes species such as Futalognkosaurus (as large as 10 elephants, from Argentina), Giganotosaurus (also from Argentina), and Cryolophosaurus (from Antarctica), there are also a number of little-known dinosaurs from Madagascar.  The ROM’s online information portal also says that the exhibit has more multi-media than any exhibition in the ROM’s history, including reactive walls that use body-scanning technology (see below) and that it is the first exhibition in Canada to use Augmented Reality to bring dinosaurs to life.  The ROM also seems to be fulfilling its director, Janet Carding’s, pledge to make it more accessible to everyone.  During the Christmas break, after 4:30 p.m., the cost of visiting the ROM (General admission) and the dinosaur exhibit went down to half price.  Best value pricing also applies on Fridays from 4:30 PM – 8:30 PM.

The ROM’s temporary exhibit hall in the basement of the museum is a rather awkward space, and so exhibit designers must be inventive to draw visitors’ attention away from the pillars which bisect the space, towards the main exhibit offerings.  These are striking enough to get visitors’ attention right away – the exhibit’s preliminary offering is a changing map of the continents over millions of years beginning with the supercontinent of Pangaea, and morphing into the supercontinents of Gondwana and Laurasia, and eventually into the continents that we know today.  Information about continental drift and tectonics is offered next, with interactive and educational explanations about geology and geography, and how these affected species separation of the dinosaurs and eventually of mammals.  The exhibits of dinosaur skeletons and casts are impressively huge, and the lighting is designed to make an impact.  Information is ample and interesting, and visitors seem to be genuinely keen to read the text.  So far,  so good.

I like dinosaur exhibits, and enjoy exploring information about new finds but I really went to the exhibit to see the new media called Augmented Reality that the ROM has used to show off the dinos.  I had read about Augmented Reality in a number of online journals, and had also voted for it as a type of electronic media that is most likely to affect museum exhibition offerings in the next five years.  The New Media Horizon Museum Edition is a predictive report on which technologies, trends, and challenges will affect museums over the next five years.  The report shows a “time-to-adopt” horizon for augmented reality of two to three years for museums.  The report describes the medium as:

“Augmented reality (AR), a capability that has been around for decades, has shifted from what was once seen as a gimmick to a tool with tremendous potential. The layering of information over 3D space produces a new experience of the world, sometimes referred to as “blended reality,” and is fueling the broader migration of computing from the desktop to the mobile device, bringing with it new expectations regarding access to information and new opportunities for learning. While the most prevalent uses of augmented reality so far have been in the consumer sector (for marketing, social engagement, amusement, or location-based information), new uses seem to emerge almost daily, as tools for creating new applications become even easier to use. A key characteristic of augmented reality is its ability to respond to user input. This interactivity confers significant potential for learning and assessment; with it, learners can construct new understanding based on interactions with virtual objects that bring underlying data to life. Dynamic processes, extensive datasets, and objects too large or too small to be manipulated can be brought into a learner’s personal space at a scale and in a form easy to understand and work with.”(NMC Horizon Project Museum Edition 2012: 2).

The ROM’s dinosaur exhibit showcases three augmented reality “stations” at the exhibits which flesh out the dinosaurs and also provide more information on “hotspots” on the screen.  This was very popular with all visitors (judging by the many greasy fingerprints on the screens), and is shown on iPads at each station.  The more exciting application of this technology from my point of view, however, are the three other stations where visitors can use their own iPad or iPhone to see a virtual dinosaur.  (To do this you must download an app before you get to the exhibit).  The three-dimensional dinos move realistically, and rear and roar at you as you move around them with your mobile device.  One rather nice feature I found about this application is that it allows you to take almost instant photos of the dinosaurs in mid-movement and then email them to yourself or someone else.

Other interactive media offerings in the exhibit include reactive walls which use body-scanning technology to track visitors (standing on footprints on reactive pads on the floor activates the tracking) so that the screen reacts to movement in specific ways, for example, if you stand in front of the crocodilians wall the creature opens its mouth and snaps at you.  I did not explore the multi-user interactive “reassemble Gondwana” continent game, nor the interactive timeline (which involves “scrubbing” a virtual timeline to explore evolutionary and geological stories but I’m sure they were great fun for families with technology-minded kids.

Augmented reality still has some way to go to be adopted by many museums.  Its cost is still prohibitive, but it has great potential for both history and natural history exhibits – it can be used to create re-enactments of historical events for example, or to show natural events occurring over long periods of time (as in slow-motion photography).  Its great strength is its realistic representation of things that could only be imagined or shown on film before now.  It will be very interesting to see how (and whether) museums adopt it over the next 10 years.

*Elka Weinstein, regular contributor to Masters in Museums.