Extinct Ice Age Animals Will Be Digitally Resurrected In the Metaverse
Scientifically accurate augmented reality models of extinct animals could soon immerse us in a time of the past.
Monisha RavisettiFormer Science Writer
Monisha Ravisetti was a science writer at CNET. She covered climate change, space rockets, mathematical puzzles, dinosaur bones, black holes, supernovas, and sometimes, the drama of philosophical thought experiments.
Previously, she was a science reporter with a startup publication called The Academic Times, and before that, was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry.
When she's not at her desk, she's trying (and failing) to raise her online chess rating. Her favorite movies are Dunkirk and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
The figures are deliberately created in low-definition because such parameters call for simpler technical processing so they can run on phones and introduce room to refine features as we continue to unearth fossil data over time.
"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," William Swartout, chief technology officer at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies and co-author of the study, said in a statement.
The team says its initial goal was to investigate how augmented reality can be brought into museums as educational tools. For instance, while examining museum exhibits, people could study 3D animal models on their cell phones to get a sense of what fauna looked like once upon a time. (You can also check them out on Snapchat by scanning these snapcodes and on Instagram, in the Effects gallery.)
However, during the project, Swartout and his colleagues found there weren't really any lifelike designs based on hard paleontology evidence. Instead, many extinct animal reconstructions in popular and academic media, the team explained, weren't subjected to rigorous scrutiny, which thereby hindered its scientific accuracy.
Matt Davis, an exhibition developer at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Country and lead author of the study, explains the shaggy fur of Shasta ground sloths -- bear-size creatures that lived during the Pleistocene over 11,000 years ago -- is based on the discovery of an entire skeleton of the species that had preserved hair and skin. We have proof of their furry exterior. But depictions of the mammoth-like mastodon often show them with similarly fluffy hair. That's just an artistic decision -- an educated guess drawn from just a few hair strands scientists uncovered with mastodon fossils.
Thus, for the purpose of a museum metaverse, the team made their own evidence-based and scientifically precise designs. "Paleoart can be very influential in how the public, and even scientists, understand fossil life," Emily Lindsey, assistant curator at La Brea Tar Pits and senior author of the study, said in a statement.
Paleoart can determine how we think about certain extinct animals. Think, for instance, of the dinosaurs. We don't have a great understanding of exactly what a T. rex looked like, but I bet you're thinking about the design in Jurassic Park right now.
"We think paleoart is a crucial part of paleontological research," Davis said. "That's why we 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."
Correction, March 4: The original version of this story misstated the name of the mammoth modeled as part of the La Brea Tar Pits paleoart AR project. It's the Columbian mammoth.