Saturday, April 19, 2008

Be the Dinosaur: a travelling museum exhibit

For some time now, I have been working as a scientific consultant on a travelling museum exhibit called Be the Dinosaur. The main attraction to this exhibit is the virtual simulation of the Late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation. Visitors can navigate through the environment as a Tyrannosaurus rex or a Triceratops and try and complete some tasks, such as gathering food, or crossing a river, etc. However, in order to survive these simulations, the visitor must be very keenly aware of what they need to do and where to look for necessary stuff such as energy-rich food - the dinosaurs have a virtual digestive system and need to stock up energy for severe tasks like fording rivers. These information are provided in the panel-based education kiosks located throughout the exhibit so you can't skip the kiosks and go straight into the simulator pods - because you won't be prepared to survive. I think this is a clever way to educate visitors in various fields of science associated with dinosaur palaeobiology, including hunting behaviours, social behaviours, nutrition, energetics, biomechanics, etc.

Currently, the simulation features Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, some insects for the background and lots of plants but will in the future include other animals such as fishes, turtles, lizards, crocs, and other species of Hell Creek dinosaurs possibly including birds.

You can view a few sample movies on Youtube
Wildlife Documentary
It's good to be King
Visitor response

60mb version of Wildlife documentary:
Wildlife documentary large

"this is the test article and as such is a work of progress, improvements, refinements are constantly being added in both graphics and technology - and will constantly be added during the lifespan of the exhibit" - from the developers.

The "Wildlife documentary" and "It's good to be King" are both basically a nature documentary in that the camera is just placed strategically to capture the actual behaviours of the animals. In that, I mean that their behaviours are not preprogrammed or part of a scenario, but are completely governed by their AIs. The interractions between the rexes and coordinated hunting you see in "Wildlife Documentary" are completely spontaneous. The AIs only have a few simple and basic drives and needs and "some universal information that any animal that would know about its environs". So the rexes are responding to each other the way they are through whatever the AIs decided was desirable under those circumstances.

The background movements like leaves swaying in the wind or water currents plus all physical interactions are generated by a physics engine and all animals have separate AIs governing their behaviour. All of these simulations are occurring real time and thus it is virtually a new experience every single simulation. Because all events are unfolding real time, the above videos are in essence a documentary and the cameras have to be placed in a good position to actually capture anything interesting.

In the actual simulator pods though, it is not just watching a nature documentary but actually getting involved as a T. rex or a Triceratops. You can be part of a hunting party or a member of a large herd in search of fresh vegetation...

The exhibit will premiere at the Louisville Science Center in mid May and then go on tour.


Traumador said...

Saw the demo for this on Laelaps. It's amazing!

How much input did you give them? Was it just behavioural and environmental stuff or did you give them input on the look of the Dinos too?

Mambo-Bob said...

I gave input on a very wide range of subjects some of which I had to do some lengthy research on. Some of the difficult ones were: the environment, especially the depositional environ because I'm not a geologist; the flora, not only did I have to read up on Hell Creek flora but also figure out what the hell these plants look like (again, I'm no botanist); and nutritional info on wild plants, I had a hell of a hard time trying to research this until I stumbled across Hummel et al. 2007 (thank goodness!). Other inputs included info on contemporary non-dino fauna (including if Deinosuchus was around), social vs non-social behaviours in Triceratops (including horn-locking and intraspecific combat), possible hunting styles in T. rex (including the role of olfaction, which I turned into a blog post), and quite a few more topics that I can't quite remember now...And of course, I made quite a lot of detailed comments on their dino reconstructions.

Traumador said...

Wow. That sounds huge, but kinda fun!

Again the results look amazing. Hopefully its a hit and goes international so I can try it first hand down here in NZ!

Mambo-Bob said...

Yeah, I hope it goes international as well. I'm currently in England!