Sunday, June 05, 2016

Better Bets: Summer in the City

"Dinosaurs Among Us" - American Museum of Natural History

Photo courtesy of The American Museum of Natural History

While away a summer afternoon learning about the similarities between the modern creatures we call birds and their prehistoric ancestors. The newest exhibition at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History (A.M.N.H), Dinosaurs Among Us, allows visitors to explore the multitude of evidence that birds are actually dinosaurs, including the facts that some dinosaurs had feathers, nested and laid eggs.

 Mark A. Norell, chairman of the division of paleontology at A.M.N.H., curated the exhibition, which features hands on elements, including an interactive game that allows visitors to create their own dinosaur and discover whether or not it would be able to fly. Will It Fly? was created by a team in the Exhibition Department that included Eozin Che and Joseph Levit. They take us behind the scenes…


Photo Rhonda Erb
How did the concept for the Will It Fly? exhibit come about and what did you hope that visitors would learn from interacting with the exhibit?

Eozin Che: From the conception, we wanted to add an element of "gamefication" to the user's interaction. We were certain that adding a dimension of physicality to this project would help create a much more immersive environment. Instead of re-creating another conventional touch screen project, we decided to go with tangible modular blocks for the user to insert into designated slots.

The focus was on providing an engaging experience, in which both parents and children could naturally familiarize current evolutionary theory by comparing the differences and similarities of both extinct and extant species through graphical interaction.

Joseph Levit: The concept was developed after talking to the curator and learning that it was important for our audience to understand from an anatomical perspective why certain birds and dinosaurs were able to fly, and others weren’t. We hope that visitors will learn that having large wings, a small body and a large breastbone (keel) make it most likely that an organism could therefore fly.


Photo: Rhonda Erb

What aspects of the Will It Fly? exhibit were you responsible for and what challenges did you encounter while you were working on it?

E.C.: I worked as a programmer for the installation. My responsibilities included asset management / integration / adjustment and programming in a multi-platform development tool called Unity3D. The biggest challenge I had was training myself to get used to a tool in a short time frame for the exhibit. As we ended up with using a wide range of techniques in Unity3D from path animation to sound adjustment, it was challenging to get all the functions to work, but definitely a great learning experience for me in terms of programming for game development.

J.L.: After the initial concept, I was tasked with determining which extinct species would cover all eight permutations of three variables that visitors can manipulate in this interactive. The variables are wing size, body size and size of breastbone. After figuring that out, with help from an expert in biological flight at the museum, I worked with our 3D animator, interactive designer, and coders to flesh out the interactive.

For my part, that included determining the behaviors of each of these species. I needed to know how to tell the 3D animator what to build. I used modern birds with similar characteristics as models. I also found modern examples of birds that would relate to the eight extinct species, so that they could be compared on screen, and found the images for those.

I drew out 24 separate flight/walk/swim pathways for our eight species at each of three stations, and shared those pathways with the coders. I also had to determine key components of the background, so that the creatures could interact with their environments in ways that showcased their natural abilities.

Finally, I wrote all of the text for the interactive, including title, user instructions and factual feedback for the visitors.


Photo: Rhonda Erb

Did you contribute to other areas of the Dinosaurs Among Us exhibition, and if so, can you talk about those other contributions?

E.C.: There were two other areas I was partially involved in: I helped our in-house animator, Bob, with the sound and background design. Although Bob is someone who is very open to second opinions, the final sound effects were hard to choose and he worked tirelessly on that.

J.L.: Yes, in addition to the work on Will It Fly? I also was in charge of the content for an interactive about bird sounds. I found six species of birds with primitive calls, and did research about what those calls mean. I then found the audio files for those calls, and wrote the copy for a label deck explaining them. I also advised about which pictures to use to accompany the text. Coders did work on this, and another person on our team did all of the technical equipment work. The Graphics team put together the panel.


Photo: Rhonda Erb

What did you enjoy most about working on Dinosaurs Among Us and/or what is your favorite part of the exhibition?

E.C.: As is always the case with user tests, there was some unexpected feedback/interaction from the users. One of them being a lack of clarity with the graphical responses to the user input.

My favorite exhibition piece is the looking into an eggshell structure through a microscope. I really enjoyed the eggshell exhibition, especially the feature in which the user was provided with a video on how to analyze layers of the egg structure prior to looking into the microscope to observe various structure patterns. The video-demo was minimal yet highly intuitive for users to fully appreciate the intention of the exhibition.

J.L.: I most enjoyed coming up with the 24 pathways for the animated dinosaur/birds in the interactive. It was a challenge to make them realistic, and at the same time unique within the same environment.

Can you share anything about the next exhibit that your team will be working on for AMNH?

E.C.: The next exhibition is going to be about the nature, history and culture of Cuba. It is going to be fantastic. I am really looking forward to it. Anyone interested can learn more on our website later this year.

The American Museum of Natural History’s "Dinosaurs Among Us Exhibition"will be open until January 2, 2017.

- Rhonda Erb
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