Visitors to the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, DC can now have exciting and unique encounters with some long-dead inhabitants of the historic “Bone Hall.” By creatively combining augmented reality (AR) with century-old specimens, scientists have added a new dimension to the Smithsonian’s ever-popular exhibit of nearly 300 vertebrate skeletons – which first opened in 1881. Now, as of January 2015, more than a dozen selected skeletons are participating in one of the largest and most complex museum exhibits to use 3-dimensional AR.
“Skin & Bones,” the innovative new app that enables this experience, is the result of two years of work by NMNH and a creative team of students and media production experts. While preserving the Victorian setting and classic presentation of NMNH’s Bone Hall, the app augments the exhibit for 21st century visitors using mobile technology. No longer just an exhibit of dry bones, selected NMNH specimens can now appear startlingly alive!
The new app, “Skin & Bones,” is a free download and for the iPhone (optimized for iPhone 5), the iPad, and the iPod touch (iOS 7.1 or later). After downloading “Skin & Bones,” visitors can point the camera of their mobile device at one of 13 skeletons displayed throughout the exhibit and view 3-D graphics showing the animal’s appearance in life “with its skin on,” as well as learn how it sounded, moved, or preyed on other creatures. Selected animals that come to life via the new app include vampire bats, a 150-pound Mississippi catfish, the anhinga or snake bird, giant sea cows, and rattlesnakes.
The app also includes audiovisual experiences, activities, animations, games, and videos, with information about evolution, functional anatomy, ecology, and introductions to Smithsonian scientists. All videos and animations are captioned and include voiceovers.
The “Skin & Bones” app enriches any visit to the Bone Hall, making it more contemporary and more informative! Augmented reality is among the newest technologies for museum exhibits, while the app’s videos, games, animations, and interactives are geared to the ways that people prefer to engage with exhibits: via ideas, people, animals, objects, and physical actions. AR appeals especially to the “objects” type of learning, but “Skin & Bones” includes content for all styles of engagement. The app (other than the AR function) can also be used by people unable to visit NMNH in person.
About the Creators:
“Skin & Bones” was created by Robert Costello, National Outreach Program Manager at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, in collaboration with a team of students and media production experts. It recently received the 2015 Gold Muse Award of the American Alliance of Museums in the Games and Augmented Reality category. 3-D modeling for the app was done at NMNH, while supporting animations were developed by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The project was supported by a grant from Booz Allen Hamilton.