Want to hang out with extinct animals? Metaverse is there for you

And they are scientifically accurate.
Deena Theresa
A 3D rendered illustration of a mammoth walking on snow covered hills. Orla/iStock

Loved the Ice Age franchise? Ever wished to see Manny, the woolly mammoth, Diego, the saber-toothed cat, and the rest of the cast from Ice Age in real life? Live on the other side of the world from La Brea Tar Pits, the only consistently active and urban Ice Age excavation site in the world?

Fret not, you're in luck. Thanks to new research, you can bring these extinct animals back to life through augmented reality (AR). Matt Davis and colleagues at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and La Brea Tar Pits collaborated with researchers and designers at the University of Southern California (USC) to create more than a dozen new, scientifically accurate virtual models of Ice Age animals, published recently in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica.

The team was investigating how AR impacts learning in museums when they realized that there weren't any accurate Ice Age animals in the metaverse that they could use. With the help of the latest paleontological research, they made their own. The models were built in a blocky, low poly style so that they could be scientifically accurate, but simple enough to run on normal cell phones with limited processing power.

Paleoart, a crucial part of paleontological research

William Swartout, Chief Technology Officer at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies and the co-author of the study, stressed the importance of creating scientifically accurate artwork. “The innovation of this approach is that it allows us to create scientifically accurate artwork for the metaverse without overcommitting to details where we still lack good fossil evidence," he said. 

The researchers also intend to bring more respect to paleoart, art that recreates what extinct animals might have looked like. “Paleoart can be very influential in how the public, and even scientists, understand fossil life,” said Emily Lindsey, assistant curator at La Brea Tar Pits and senior author of the study. 

American artist Mark Hallett coined the term "paleoart" in 1987. Hallett had emphasized the importance of the collaborative effort between 
artists, paleontologists and other specialists in gaining access to information for generating realistic restorations of extinct animals.

However, most paleoart is treated as an afterthought and isn't taken seriously. This can lead to poor reconstructions of extinct animals which are then propagated for generations in popular media and academic publications. 

"We think paleoart is a crucial part of paleontological research,” said Davis, the study’s lead author. Which explains why the team decided to publish all the scientific research and artistic decisions that went into creating these models. "This will make it easier for other scientists and paleoartists to critique and build off our team’s work," he said.

Davis also noted that it is just as important to acknowledge what we don’t know about these animals’ appearances as it is to record what we do know.

For example, the shaggy fur of Shasta ground sloths can be accurately depicted because paleontologists have found a whole skeleton of this species with hair and skin still preserved. But for mastodons, paleontologists have only found a few strands of hair. Their thick fur pelt was an artistic decision. Davis and colleagues hope that other paleoartists and scientists will follow suit by publishing all the research that goes into their reconstructions of extinct species. Which will lead to better and more accurate paleoart.

So, how can you experience these extinct animals in AR for yourself?

If you have Snapchat, you can meet a saber-toothed cat, dire wolf, Shasta ground sloth, Harlan’s ground sloth, American lion, Columbian mammoth, American mastodon, Western camel, ancient bison, dwarf pronghorn, Western horse, teratorn, and short-faced bear in AR.

Open Instagram and navigate to "Add to story". Select "Camera". In the camera mode, there is a carousel of AR effects immediately to the right of the recording button. Scroll all the way to the right to the “Browse effects” button. Clicking on it will open the Effect gallery. In the Effect gallery, search for any of the AR animals listed above to view the animal on Instagram.

If you have an iPhone or iPad, you can download the free Sketchfab app. You do not need to create a Sketchfab account to use the app. Open the Sketchfab app and click on the menu to search for “La Brea”. Click on the “La Brea Tar Pits low poly Ice Age animals” collection by NHM. 

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