Museum, USC create AR experiences at La Brea Tar Pits

The augmented reality system, which will take three years to fully implement, will connect visitors to the past and aims to make education about the tar pits more engaging. (Photo courtesy of Kristin Friedrich)

Woolly mammoths may be extinct, but visitors at the La Brea Tar Pits will get to see one up close. By partnering with USC, the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County will introduce a new augmented reality experience to transport patrons back in time.

The USC Institute of Creative Technology partnered with the USC Rossier School of Education after taking an interest in how the La Brea Tar Pits presented natural history within Los Angeles.

“It’s one of those places that’s extremely unique,” said Benjamin Nye, the director for learning science research at USC ICT. “You don’t usually get things that have essentially that kind of natural history directly in the middle of the city.”

The project will take three years to fully implement so that AR can undergo different test groups and designs.

“Essentially, what ends up happening is we have this sort of spiral inverted design process,” Nye said. “I mean a lot of the science is about being able to look at things and compare them.”

One of the challenges the La Brea Tar Pits has historically faced is overcoming visitors’ misconceptions about what the exhibit offers, according to the museum’s assistant curator Emily Lindsey.

“Lots of visitors come here for dinosaurs … [but] dinosaurs have gone extinct 66 million years ago and the asphalt seeps here only started capturing fossils 50,000 years ago,” Lindsey said.

Since the human lifespan is limited, Lindsey said it can be difficult for guests to fully grasp the difference in time. Implementing AR may help bridge the gap in understanding the history by presenting the information in a new and interactive way.

To overcome this problem, the museum issued a questionnaire to volunteers, asking them for some of their initial thoughts on the exhibit. Test subjects would then go through the AR experience to see how tar pits trapped mammoths. Afterward, questionnaires were reissued to see if the guests’ degree of understanding changed after the AR experience. Developers used data from these responses to write a grant proposal that was funded $2 million by the National Science Foundation.

“We will now use the money to build a permanent exhibit at La Brea that will have a much more sophisticated version of the original beta version,” said Gale Sinatra, a professor of education and psychology at the Rossier School of Education.

Adapting AR to function in a museum has its time constraints, according to Nye. Since asking visitors to sit through a 20-minute video isn’t feasible for the space, developers have had to find ways to condense the material.

“It’s really trying to deliver a lot of high impact information to help people learn quickly,” Nye said. “But that essentially is getting the most important information and learning something.”

Utilizing AR in the museum will allow visitors to visualize the scientific process and  learn more about the history of the pits and the animals that were trapped there.

“There’s a lot of work being done excavating remains from these animals,” Sinatra said. “We decided we could use augmented reality to help visitors envision … what’s happening in the present with scientists investigating what they excavate from the asphalt.”

The museum hopes that this AR experience will encourage new methods of learning at the La Brea exhibit.  

“Learning ends up being a lot like exercise if you’re not pushing it all the time, if you’re not applying it, the recall of the knowledge and the application of it,” Nye said. “I think that’s the big thing that you get out of something interactive.”