Augmented Reality Livens up Museums

We still have to wait a bit for Google Goggles, but augmented reality is moving mainstream, even bringing museum dinosaurs to life

Augmented reality puts flesh on dinosaur bones.
Augmented reality puts flesh on dinosaur bones. Photo courtesy of Meld Media

Chances are you think you already have enough information in your life. Why, oh why, would you want to add more layers?

Yet there’s something intriguing about the concept of augmented reality, the notion of enhancing objects in the real world with virtual sounds and images and additional info. And when Google revealed earlier this year that it was developing glasses that will be part wearable computer, part digital assistant that flashes relevant data right before your eyes, augmented reality (AR) no longer seemed such a digital parlor trick. The geek gods had spoken.

In fact, recent analysis by the London firm ABI Research concludes that the next big phase of AR–now largely played out on smartphones and tablets–will be through wearable tech. That’s when the technology will become truly functional, when your glasses are able to tell you everything you want to know about the restaurants and stores on the block where you’re walking.

Will Powell, an AR wiz recently interviewed by Slash Gear, concurs:

I think that with the desire for more content and easier simpler devices, using what we are looking at and hearing to tell our digital devices what we want to find is the way forward. Even now we have to get a tablet, phone or laptop out to look something up. Glasses would completely change this because they are potentially always on and are now adding full time to at least one of our fundamental senses.

Scenes from an exhibition

One place, however, where AR is still making its mark on small screens is the museum world. Those who run museums know that the people walking around their buildings are already spending an inordinate amount of time using their phones, whether it’s taking pictures or texting friends or taking pictures to text to friends. So it only makes sense to find ways to turn phones into storytelling tools that can bring the inanimate to life. Or shift time. Or add layers of knowledge. More museums are taking the leap and while the results can sometimes still seem a bit gimmicky, it’s a move in the right direction.

One of the the latest examples is an exhibit called “Ultimate Dinosaurs” that opened at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto earlier this summer. It uses augmented reality to add flesh to the bones of dinosaurs and lets them move around. In some cases, you can use an app on your smartphone to make beasts pop out of markers around the exhibit, including on the floor; in others you can use iPads provided by the museum to turn fossils into fleshed-out creatures. And along the walls are animated projections of dinos that also are interactive. With the help of a Kinect 3-D camera, their eyes follow your every move. A bit creepy, but what museum couldn’t use a little thrill.

Instead of reconstituting dinosaurs, the Laguna Beach Art Museum in California is using AR to bring motion to still photos. Dancers frozen in an image start to spin on your smartphone screen; a woman captured under water suddenly swims away. It’s the first phase of images escaping their frames.

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles is taking yet another approach. In an exhibit titled “Life of Art,” it enables visitors to use iPads to explore in much more detail–and even rotate–classic historical objects from its permanent collection–a 17th century lidded porcelain bowl from Asia, for instance, and an 18th century French armchair.

But maybe the most engaging twist of AR with an exhibit has been pulled off by the Science Museum in London. An iPhone app turns James May, one of the hosts of the popular BBC show “Top Gear,” into a virtual museum guide. By aiming the camera at a marker near nine of the exhibits in the Making the Modern World Gallery, you conjure up a CGI version of May, spinning tales and reeling off details about steam engines and the first home computers.

What is reality?

Here are other examples of augmented reality pushing envelopes:

  • Now that’s point-and-shoot: Researchers at MIT’s Media Lab have developed an AR device they call EyeRing. It’s a tiny camera you wear on your finger and when you take a picture of an object, it transmits it to a smartphone that gives you information about what you’ve photographed.
  • But does it work on bald?: Meanwhile, the folks at Disney Research have created a technology using reverse electrovibration that projects texture on to smooth surfaces.
  • Really interior design: The 2013 edition of the IKEA catalog has its own AR spin. You can use a smartphone app to see inside cabinets and get design ideas not available to those satisfied only with reality.
  • But wait,there’s more: The Los Angeles Times used the start of the London Olympics to join print publications dabbling in AR. It rolled out an app that enabled readers to get more material by hovering their phones over Olympics photos in the paper.
  • For those who expect more from their chips than crunch: We should all be grateful that we have lived long enough to experience potato chip bags that predict the weather. This month and next, Walkers crisps will come in bags that, once you download the appropriate mobile app, share the weather report for today and tomorrow. There are no plans, as yet, for five-day forecasts.

Video bonus: Here’s a demo video showing how dinosaurs come back to life in a Toronto museum.

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