Could We Offer Wildlife Encounters Without Holding Animals Captive?
At the Sea Life London Aquarium visitors can come face-to-face with a polar bear and its cubs and interact with them. Shortly after they can watch a whale splash just feet away from where they stand. The animals are available for photo ops from the moment the aquarium opens until it closes for the day. It may sound like a grueling schedule but the animals don’t mind — because they’re not animals at all.
At the newly opened Frozen Planet exhibit, the animals are computer images produced by augmented reality. They’re projections, though they look eerily real, that allow visitors to get close to wildlife without having to keep it in captivity.
“We believe that this experience perfectly complements our educational exhibits,” says Toby Forer, General Manager of the Sea Life London Aquarium, which also offers live animal exhibitions but no interaction programs. “There are some species and creatures which we do not believe are suited to life in captivity (including cetaceans) but we are now able to bring some of these awe-inspiring animals to our visitors through cutting edge technology and incredible BBC Earth footage.”
The nature documentary series BBC Earth has been broadcasting awe-inspiring images of wildlife and its habitat for over 50 years on television and online. Its mini-series called “Frozen Planet” explored the Earth’s arctic regions and the aquarium’s exhibit pairs those breathtaking images with technology that brings them to life.
As visitors walk through the two rooms where the exhibit takes place, all of their senses are stimulated to mimic an arctic expedition. They feel the blistering cold air, hear icicles descending on a seabed and even see the Northern Lights above them in the “sky.”
The Sea Life London Aquarium in the first aquarium to use the technology but other facilities have taken to it as well. The Lawrence Hall of Science’s exhibit “Xtreme Bugs” used augmented reality to have bugs land on kids’ foreheads and crawl from behind the rope into the audience members.
Dinosaur Isle, the dinosaur museum at the Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom, has used similar technology that allows guests to see, with the help of a tablet, dinosaurs roaming its grounds as they once did thousands of years before. They can even get close to the animals and take a picture petting one — like a real life Jurassic Park minus the whole death by T-Rex attack threat.
But the technology is not just useful for bringing extinct animals back to life. Since live animals in captivity tend to avoid human attention and hide as best as they can, not all visitors get to actually see the animals. They may also just pace back and forth, instead of showcasing their natural behavior in the wild. Augmented reality could fix those issues for both the animals and paying customers.
“Using augmented reality you can demonstrate those things that the animal is not going to necessarily do when you’re standing there,” says Marybeth Green, graduate advisor of instructional technology at Texas A&M University.
Instead of having to look away from the animals to read instructional signage, augmented reality also allows visitors to listen to the information on the animal as they watch it. In a time when selfies with animals have proven to be deadly, the technology also allows for the animal interactions to be documented with a screenshot that is then immediately available for sharing on social media.
But is it as entertaining? Visitors seem to think so. Forer says people who have seen the Frozen Planet exhibit at the Sea Life London Aquarium have expressed how much they loved it and there’s a possibility for adding other similar exhibits in the future.
If all of those motives aren’t enough to encourage zoos and parks from replacing real animals with projected ones, INDE, a company that develops the augmented reality experiences, has another one — the bottom line. When questioning whether this sort of exhibit is more affordable than a live one, it answers using the example of Tony, the Rhino, at the Toronto Zoo.
“Tony the Rhino eats approximately 1% of his own bodyweight in food per day. You do the math.”
Photo Credit: INDE