Researchers and designers in the US have created more than a dozen new, scientifically accurate virtual models of Ice Age animals that enthusiasts can view in augmented reality (AR).
A collaborative team based in California was investigating how AR affects learning in museums, but soon realised there weren’t any accurate Ice Age animals in the metaverse yet that they could use.
As a result, the team at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, La Brea Tar Pits, in collaboration with designers at the University of Southern California (USC), built the models in a blocky, low poly style so that they could be scientifically accurate, but still simple enough to run on normal mobile phones with limited processing power.
“The innovation of this approach is that it allows us to create scientifically accurate artwork for the metaverse without over-committing to details where we still lack good fossil evidence,” said Dr William Swartout, chief technology officer at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies.
The researchers hope this will also bring more respect to paleoart – the artistic discipline that aims to recreate what extinct animals may have looked like.
“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.
According to Lindsey, scientists treat a lot of paleoart as an afterthought and are not subject to the same rigorous scrutiny as other scientific research. This can lead to particularly bad reconstructions of extinct animals being propagated for generations in both the popular media and academic publications.
“We think paleoart is a crucial part of paleontological research,” said Dr Matt Davis, an exhibition 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 make it easier for other scientists and paleoartists to critique and build off our team’s work.”
Davis noted it is just as important to acknowledge what we don’t know about these animals’ appearances as it is to record what we do know. For example, we can accurately depict the shaggy fur of Shasta ground sloths because paleontologists have found a complete skeleton of this species with hair and skin still preserved. For mastodons, paleontologists have only found a few strands of hair – their thick fur pelt was an artistic decision.
The research team hopes that other paleoartists and scientists will follow their example by publishing all the research that goes into their reconstructions of extinct species. This approach should mean better and more accurate paleoart for everyone.
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