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Augmented Reality film launches at the Natural History Museum

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Graham Thomas Graham Thomas | 12:00 UK time, Monday, 6 December 2010

The Natural History Museum in London have just opened an interactive film called Who Do you think you really are? in the new David Attenborough Studio lecture theatre. The film was produced in conjunction with the BBC Natural History unit, and they were keen to make it more than just a conventional video presentation. They approached us at BBC R&D to see if technology we'd previously developed for adding 'virtual' graphics to TV could be adapted to produce an augmented reality element for the film.  The end result is an innovative museum experience that makes use of our camera tracking technology, in conjunction with specially-designed handheld displays and rendering software developed by other partners in the project, to bring extinct creatures to life using augmented reality. 


The Interactive Film exhibit at the Natural History Museum Copyright Natural History Museum- Rights Reserved

The Interactive Film exhibit at the Natural History Museum

Copyright Natural History Museum- Rights Reserved


The film, which looks at evolution, uses the handheld display with a webcam to give each member of the audience their own window on the past. Animated 3D models of extinct creatures are combined with live video from the webcam in the handheld to create the appearance that the creatures are wandering around the studio in front of the audience. The camera tracking technology allows the system to render a view of the creature that matches the handheld’s camera view by accurately calculating the camera’s position and orientation within the studio. This gives the audience an opportunity to use their handheld display to track the creature as it moves around them.


The Interactive Film show at the Natural History Museum uses special tablet devices to allow visitors to experience a unique viewpoint on virtual exhibits

The Interactive Film show at the Natural History Museum uses special tablet devices to allow visitors to experience a unique viewpoint on virtual exhibits Copyright Natural History Museum- Rights Reserved


Augmented reality applications on hand-held devices are becoming increasingly common, but most rely on technology like accelerometers, solid-state gyros and compasses which do not provide the solid registration between real and virtual content that was needed to make this experience really believable.  We have previously developed approaches that rely on image-based tracking, for example the free-d system  (used in 'virtual studio' applications like graphics for Election night; it uses circular barcoded-markers on the ceiling of a TV studio, viewed by an upward-looking camera mounted on the studio camera), or the sports graphics system used on programmes like Match of the Day, that tracks lines on a football pitch.  These provide estimates of the camera position and orientation that are accurate enough for very good registration, but they need special markers or lines to be present.  Tracking from arbitrary image features is possible, but can be difficult, particularly in a situation where the scene is poorly-lit or the lighting is changing. To make an image-based approach work in the context of the museum, we needed to find a way of putting distinct visual markings into the scene that the tracking system could see but that would not detract from its appearance to the audience.  We came up with a solution that used infra-red LEDs, which are visible to the webcams but not to people.  The LEDs are concealed within the structure of the David Attenborough studio, in accurately-known positions.  We also devised a method for the system to work out which LED was which.

More information about the film can be found on the Natural History Museum's website, and some of our other work on virtual graphics is described on the R&D website.


  • Comment number 1.

    I have a deep respect for Sir David Attenborough. So when he writes, speaks , films, I pay attention.
    ‘Who do you think you really are? features completely unique film making technology to tell the story of how we evolved from the simplest living creatures, and how we share our DNA with a huge variety of life."
    Of course these is true, as far as it goes.
    But I'm disappointed that Sir David has failed to address that whalloping hole in our so-called evolution. I speak of "the missing link". This being cannot be found, and will not be found, though the search has been literally endless.
    My beliefs re human evolution has come from "The Earth Chronicals", the series of books written by Zechariah Sitchin - who unfortunately just passed in October, 2010.
    I think that "evolution" as such cannot explain the huge leap that humankind made from beings like homo erectus to beings like homo sapiens sapiens. This leap did not evolve. Evolution takes far more time - millions of years.
    Yet homo sapiens sapiens sprang up overnight! So what interfered with our natural evolution?
    I believe that Zechariah Sitchin's explanation and research is correct and will come to be seen as correct.
    Sir David, have you read the Earth Chronicles?
    I would give anything to see Sitchin's theories brought to life.
    In the meantime, thanks for a film that I wish I could say I buy into, but I simply can't. It just does not explain the leap that humankind's evolition took about 300,000 years ago.

    These handsets are windows into the past. Augmented reality allows computer generated images of Coelophysis, Homo erectus and an intricate tree of life to appear as if they are in the studio with you. They can be followed around, highlighting a unique life-like presence in the studio.

    During the film scientists also give you virtual gifts. At home you can sign in to www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus to access gifts and a rich resource of additional information, including augmented reality clips and forums discussing Who do you think you really are?

    Who do you think you really are? is shown in the Attenborough Studio where innovative technology, Museum specimens, live animals, spectacular natural history film footage and Museum scientists come together to create an inspiring programme of free daily films and live events.

    Share this

  • Comment number 2.

    This would be more impressive if the audience wore some sort of goggles. It would then have a realism that must be completely missing from the experience with the tablet style device.
    The technology is there.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Kit, You're quite right that 3d imagery using glasses is widely available, but it is worth noting that this particular installation is doing something quite different to that sort of technology, in that it allows the viewer to experience the presence of animated elements throughout the space. A screen based technology would only really work for an audience sat facing a single screen, these tablets though put animated objects in the middle of the auditorium.

  • Comment number 4.

    Ant, You misunderstood my thinking, I should have used the term virtual reality.
    With a virtual reality headset the same sort of thing could have been done, but with the possibility of a stereoscopic camera mounted within the headset and the same location determining LED lights in the venue.
    You would have your own personal 3D VR from your correct viewpoint in the venue that would still allow you to look around. A little bit more computing power would be needed to render two eyes per audience member.
    Perhaps render power was an issue, the article does not mention the resolution of the images and it is not possible to guess from the stills above as they appear to be mock-ups.
    I expect the custom hardware for the audience may be too expensive for this route.... if only there were no budgets to work to!

  • Comment number 5.

    Kit - you're right that it would have been possible to use a headset-based display, but this approach has drawbacks other than just the cost.

    If the display is the 'see-through' sort, where video is overlaid on the actual view of the scene (e.g. using a half-silvered mirror in front of each eye) then a very low latency tracker and renderer are needed to avoid the virtual image 'swimming' a bit in front of the real world, and in a practical setup it is pretty much impossible to achieve this. Also, the virtual content will appear partially transparent.

    If the display is of the 'non-see-through' sort (i.e. showing an image where the background has come from a video camera mounted on the headset, much like the tablet display used here) then any latency or reduced frame-rate can leave users feeling sick, as their view of the world does not behave naturally when they move their head.

    Using the hand-held tablet means that the system is much less critical around issues of latency, and also there is nothing to impair the audience's view of the non-virtual parts. Also, in this case, there was a need for a tablet PC anyway to implement the other interactive parts of the show (which use the tablet as a touch screen), so it made sense to do everything in one device (the audience might also end up getting the cables on the tablet and the glasses knotted together!)

  • Comment number 6.

    <RICHPOST>We are not long from seeing the eyewear for augmented reality hit the shelves, especially with the introduction of graphene being recently discovered. There was a very interesting piece of news featured in the BBC news pages a few months back on graphene. This will make these shows and events absolutely amazing to view, and will revolutionise the learning environment overnight.<BR /><BR /><p>Chris Brookfield<br><BR /><a href="https://www.ur-ar.com/">Augmented Reality</a></p></RICHPOST>


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