Ice Age animals again roam the L.A. Basin thanks to USC, Natural History Museum collaboration

Researchers create new augmented reality paleoart to shed light on the extinct species of the region. Learn how you can “see” these animals up close.

March 17, 2022 Paul McQuiston

A saber-toothed cat roams McCarthy Quad while a Columbian mammoth toes the 50-yard line in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. An unlikely sight, but one that’s available via the smartphone in your pocket.

Viewers can see long-extinct species in their former habitats via augmented reality technology and scientifically based, three-dimensional renderings of the creatures. The project is a collaboration between researchers at USC, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the La Brea Tar Pits.

A paper describing the new paleoart and its potential applications appeared March 2 in Palaeontologia Electronica.

“In traditional approaches to paleoart, the artist creates a photorealistic depiction of a prehistoric animal,” said William Swartout, co-author and chief technology officer at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. “Because the art is intended to look realistic, down to details like hair and skin texture, the artist must make decisions about these elements even though there may be no evidence from the fossil record.

“This can introduce misconceptions, unintentionally. In our approach to paleoart, we create depictions that are more abstract, leaving out details that aren’t yet known.”

The new 3D paleoart, designed to be used in numerous applications — including augmented reality at the Natural History Museum and La Brea Tar Pits — will help educate visitors and patrons about the species that once roamed Los Angeles. The renderings can be updated electronically as new findings expand scientists’ understanding of these species. The research team hopes it will allow a way to realistically depict phenomena we can’t otherwise see.

Augmented reality gives museum patrons a window to the Ice Age

The three teams came together with a clear mission: to reduce misconceptions surrounding the science of paleontology, including those created by inaccurate paleoart. It’s a problem in a field where a single discovery can render all previous illustrations out of date. For example, when researchers determined that some dinosaurs in fact had feathers, images of large, scaly reptiles immediately became obsolete. Updating depictions of a species in museums and elsewhere can take months or even years.

Enter augmented reality paleoart.

“As a 3D medium, this paleoart can help inform museum visitors about things that might otherwise be hard to learn,” said Benjamin Nye, co-author and director of learning science research at the Institute for Creative Technologies. “For example, being able to see how we think the animals might have moved, or to show details that might only be visible from certain angles.”

“This art can and is being reused across a variety of experiences, not just our project,” Swartout added. “It can be used on the web, in AR, in Snapchat filters, in videos and potentially in games. There is a high engagement value in being able to bring the same art to people in many forms.”

Getting to see a sloth standing near you is really engaging.

Benjamin Nye, USC Institute
for Creative Technologies

Initial feedback from visitors was very positive across formats, according to Nye. He noted Snapchat filters, the simplest format to display the paleoart, are “really eye-catching — getting to see a sloth standing near you is really engaging.”

“Computer generated models can be animated, allowing the characters to come alive,” Swartout added. “They can be used in augmented or virtual reality environments so that visitors can see how the animals look in current or historical environments. In our testing with visitors to the Tar Pits, we found that they were consistently impressed by the size of the Columbian mammoths — something that the AR experience made compelling.”

Scientifically accurate paleoart envisioned as powerful educational tool

Developing the augmented reality paleoart was one component of the project; other researchers on the team ensured the models’ accuracy and developed educational opportunities utilizing the models. Incorporating the most up-to-date understanding of the species fell to researchers Matt Davis and Emily Lindsey at the Natural History Museum and La Brea Tar Pits, respectively. Davis and Lindsey aided in creating forms that, while simple, would remain accurate even when fully zoomed in.

“This is the most accurate paleoart created for these species because it uses the most up to date information,” said Davis, who served as the paper’s first author. “We hope other paleontologists and artists will build off this paper, critiquing us and developing new research that will lead to even better paleoart in the future.”

The development of augmented reality standards and practices holds great promise in education, according to Gale Sinatra, Stephen H. Crocker Chair and professor of psychology and education at the USC Rossier School of Education. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, students participating in a Tar Pits educational initiative programmed their own interactive experiences with AR saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and Shasta ground sloths despite not being able to attend the museum in person.

“The implications go beyond science — this approach has utility for other museums,” Sinatra said. “For example, a historical museum or an art museum might want to depict historical figures engaged in an event or artists working on their craft.”

The paleoart is already available via the Sketchfab app for visitors to the Natural History Museum and La Brea Tar Pits, according to Davis. Visitors on guided and self-guided tours can scan a QR code and compare the fossil collection to the paleoart, allowing them to see what the animals might have looked like while alive. Excitingly, the utility of the new technology stretches far outside the museums, or even Los Angeles.

With virtual models, anyone, anywhere, anytime can investigate and experience life-sized Ice Age animals.

Matt Davis, Natural History Museum of L.A. County

“We have physical models of some of these species at the tar pits but you have to visit Los Angeles to benefit from them,” Davis said. “With virtual models, anyone, anywhere, anytime can investigate and experience life-sized Ice Age animals. We’ve already received a lot of positive feedback from teachers who want to use the models in their classrooms.

“A man from Pennsylvania told us that he always wanted to visit La Brea Tar Pits but due to his finances and disabilities, he could never make the trip. He emailed to thank us for giving him the opportunity to experience Ice Age animals for himself without leaving home.”