My class visits an augmented reality exhibit

After my ed tech seminar’s week on virtual/augmented/mixed reality, the students came up with a plan for a field trip.  Just across town from our Georgetown campus, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History had added an augmented reality dimension to its Bone Hall.

The students floated the idea and vowed to organize it.  Naturally I approved.  One student contacted the exhibit’s tech lead, then wrangled a stack of iPads (the Skin and Bones app is IOS-only) into which she loaded the requisite app.  The class determined a date and time, which I was able to make. We all descended on the museum early on a Sunday afternoon, then ascended to the Bone Hall and explored.

The AR strategy was interesting and has many different aspects.  The basic idea was to point your iPhone or, better, iPad at certain exhibits, whereupon the app would display certain content items: a video, an audio track, an HTML page with information, and, most notably, a superimposed animation or image.  Most of the exhibits did not have AR capability.  Those that did were marked by a small sticker on their case’s glass.

For example, here’s one fish with an AR layer:

You can see the bony original on the right, and the fleshed out visualization on the iPad’s screen to the left.  Note the trailing earpiece cord; the soundtracks were very well done.  On the photo’s top right you can see the green and white stick indicating that the app could be used on an item in this case. On the app you can see some icons on the interface’s top.  Those add still more content, a mix of HTML and video.

Stepping back a little, here’s what it looks like when a person wields the iPad near a display:

Mark Anne Anel with AR tree

Three students using the AR app.

As we moved through the hall we reflected on the experience.  The extra content definitely added to our understanding of the creatures.  The process was quite easy to engage.  We saw the AR content as a new layer of the museum experience.

Students dove into some details.  Users had a lot of control over the experience, being able to walk to whichever exhibit they wanted, in whatever order they desired, and for as many times as they liked.  Several images were really 3d, once you stepped around the display, which was interesting, if harder to do when crowds were thick.  The animations differed in type – one added a muscle to a skeleton, then flexed it, so its function was clear, while others portrayed entire animals.

We discussed the pedagogical uses of this content, and determined that it was basic enough to really suit primary school kids.  Then we imagined additional AR projects for this museum and the other ones in the Smithsonian family – American History, Air and Space, etc.

We also thought about the way AR mixed together other media we’d studied: video, audio, images, the web.  This led to more discussions about AR and VR as synthetic media.

One key point for me is that the students did this.  They came up with the idea.  They organized the trip.  This is excellent, and they are awesome.

The experience was also another sign of the power of being in a major world city.  Having large, world-class museums right near campus, along with solid digital infrastructure, makes quite the difference.

For more on the Skin and Bones app, here’s the Smithsonian video:


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