“Beyond” – AR App – AMNH 2011

“Beyond” – AR App – AMNH 2011

“Beyond” – AR App – AMNH 2011

The “Beyond Planet earth AR” is a mobile App that serves as a companion to the exhibit of the same name at the American Museum of Natural History. It employs 
augmented reality technology (AR) to activate playful content
in the exhibition and on the web. It consists of an iPhone/iPad-based application that showcases three-dimensional features that can be discovered, activated, collected, explored in more detail and shared with friends. Download Here.

I originally envisioned this app as a way to add an exploratory dynamic to a show that was about exploration. I also thought that –in an exhibition that spoke mostly about the future- it was important to bring futuristic creative technologies as the carriers of our stories. For this, augmented reality + iPhone, in addition to other high-tech interactives in the gallery, felt just right. Additionally, I wanted to offer visitors the chance to play with this at home and extend the experience outside the exhibition, for which I partnered with Linda Perry-Lube –our Chief Digital Officer- to add web components to the mix. Here, visitors could not only play at home (or at school) with the 3D assets, but could also access additional information about space exploration.

This was the first time my team and I had made a mobile app associated to an exhibition, so there were many concerns about the integration between hand-held vs. exhibition-based interpretation. That was one of the main reasons I picked augmented reality as the interactive technique; it would augmented the exhibition, instead of competing with it. We developed this entire app and all the original features including 3D assets, interface, interpretive content (all of it scientifically accurate) in only four months.

This is how it works:

We wanted our interface to rely mostly on visuals clues, since we needed visitors to look at the exhibition as much as possible. It was OK to sporadically stop here and there to activate the AR content, but we didn’t want to take visitors away from the exhibition for long. Harry Borrelli –the UI designer and my partner on interaction design- made this clean and elegant interface. By using his highly iconic navigation he solved other two challenges: he made it easy to understand for non-readers (important part of our audience) and avoided text that would have needed to be translated later (something we have to accommodate for every piece we develop). Patrick O’Shaughnessey then programmed all the app in record time.

Eleven AR moments can be found along the exhibition. In each one of these moments, visitors can activate fantastic three-dimensional/animated models. The creation of these 3D models was extremely hard, since AR for mobile devices is still experimental and could not handle complex –therefore accurate- three-dimensional models. Camila Engelberg, Erin  Arden and Kim Raichstat , went through endless NASA documents and records to re-create accurate planets/moons, spaceships, lunar elevators, asteroids, rovers and more to make the models. Once activated, visitors can explore these assets from several angles by moving the iPhone around the icon.

This form of augmented reality required what is called a fiducial mark –a high-contrast-B/W-graphic code that specifies which content must be activated within the app. We decided to use iconic fiducials that clearly conveyed the content they referred to, not only to the app, but to the users as well. Kelvin Chiang designed the eleven fiducials, one of them used also as the icon of the app.

The eleven AR moments were embedded in the overall story of the show. Once an AR icon was collected, additional information would appear on screen. This information needed to be paired with the rest of the information available through other exhibit media like graphic panels, movies or interactives. Sasha Nemececk was the editor for the content in the exhibition and wrote the content of the app in alignment with it.

There is Camila –our animator- keeping Jupiter at hand.

Our colleagues from the Digital department assembled the website where you could print the icons and play with them. Here we are, Harry and I, testing the web features. Additionally, visitors could access additional information in the form of NASA animation and videos, AMNH materials and scientific papers.

Technical Information:

American Museum of Natural History, 2011
“Beyond Planet Earth – The Future of Space Exploration”, 2011
Augmented Reality Mobile app
Helene Alonso, Erin Arden, Harry Borrelli, Kelvin Chiang, Paul DeGeorge, Camila Engelbert, Melissa Lefkowitz, Sasha Nemecek, Patrick O’Shaughnessey, Linda Perry-Lube, Kim Raichstat, Mike Shara.

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