At yesterday’s AR demo, a very important issue was discussed. I proposed that in 5 years or so, a visitor would pick up virtual reality goggles at the front counter much like the earphones many museums distribute today. Dr. Eder, director of the museum, took offense to this idea. Rightly so, assuming the use of virtual reality to be like the case presented… entombing the bones in a cg costume. I had something much more graphic in mind, a layered informational screen that shows up when a visitor passes by a breath-taking specimen and offers to highlight why the troodont wrist is so bird-like, to call up a constantly accessible timeline and world map or to outline that hardly discernible but oh-so defining skull feature. Complementary and secondary, therefore. Not barging to the forefront. Similar to this interactively annotated Ida fossil, but with the additional options of animated, interactive 3 dimensional content and audio. (3D skeletal reconstruction from the production house ZOO).
I’ve witnessed unfortunate behavior that 3D productions can develop when the winds of the market are at their backs and a traditional “old school” methods before them. I’ve also seen many new techniques unfairly dismissed because the are ‘cold’ or just because that’s not the way you do things. That was the entertainment industry, which isn’t flatly comparable to a museum. Still, its important that issues of representation are discussed and awareness raised.
One aspect is the content – as alluded to above. To what degree does digital work remain in the background, when does it take a step forward, when does it leap on stage… I’ll leave that for a later post – but suffice to say, we’ll need to be creative and sensitive, both resisting and following the urge to be bold. (How’s that for solid advice?)
To see how cool that urge can turn out, check out this virtual operating room:
Who wouldn’t want to get their hands dirty on that!?
The other aspect is how this content can be presented and here I concentrate on the visualization of things… bones, organs, organisms and artifacts. How can a reconstruction truthfully convey information about what is scientifically accurate and what is conjecture? How can the elements of that reconstruction be prioritized so that it conveys the information we want to convey?
These questions lie at the heart of non-photorealistic rendering… abstraction of data, prioritized level-of-detail, etc. (Image sources a, b, c) Above, for example, we have a traditionally illustrated heart, a modeled & textured 3D geometry and a scanned heart rendered so that the surface color is determined by its curvature. Each method represents a heart, and each can be altered in a myriad of ways. Each has advantages and disadvantages, so the only way to approach an evaluation is to establish criteria. What do we wish this representation to achieve?
I’ve talked before about my distaste for 3D skeletons that visually purport to be real, when they in fact are inexact artistic constructions. This is a major gripe of mine – both with skeletal and life reconstructions. They often have fine surface details with no relevance to the actual fossils. They present a realism which not only creates a disconnect with the quality of animation, but which aims to convey exactly those uncertain bits as fact, while fascinating key features are saran-wrapped into a slick cg skin and therefore disguised.
I hear some of you saying “yeah, but the budget didn’t allow for that kind of quality”. That argument doesn’t cut it, in my opinion. Quality documentary filmers and exhibition designers must develop a feel for how to select and present content in ways that fit the given budget.