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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.

columbian-mammoth-virtual-model
A virtual model of the Columbian mammoth.
La Brea Tar Pits

Some 10,000 years ago, the magnificent Columbian mammoths took their last steps on Earth. Around the same time, the final few sabre-toothed cats preyed across the Americas. And 3,000 years before that, majestic dire wolves became creatures of the past

Scientists are revving up to bring these now-extinct animals, and more, into the domain of augmented reality. On Wednesday, they published a paper in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica that lays out artistic designs of over a dozen Ice Age era animals. And as AR is a metaverse feature, each one is poised to be re-created in the all-encompassing realm of virtual reality. 

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.

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Bring the Shasta ground sloth to life in AR with this snapcode.

La Brea Tar Pits

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.