The smartphone way to see a tropical jungle

ArtScience Museum presents first augmented and virtual reality exhibition in Asia.

Published Thu, Feb 9, 2017 · 09:50 PM
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IMAGINE holding up a smartphone to walk through a virtual rainforest experience at the ArtScience Museum, and at the end of it, press a button to have a real tree planted in Central Sumatera. The latest exhibition at the science-based museum marries conservation, technology and real life engagement - the first effort of its kind.

Into The Wild, the ArtScience Museum's new permanent exhibition, could also be called Into The Future as it signals a new era of augmented reality museum experiences.

It's the first museum experience in Asia - and second in the world, after an art institute in Detroit, USA - to use augmented reality, through Google's Tango technology and Lenovo's latest smartphone, Phab 2 Pro. There are no objects except a smartphone the viewer holds.

It also brings rainforest conservation issues into the air-conditioned space of Marina Bay Sands. By holding up the smartphone in their walk through the museum's fourth level corridor, viewers encounter a virtual rainforest scene complete with butterflies leading the way and they will see five rainforest animals, like the endangered Sumatran tiger.

The tour finally culminates in a cinematic animation created by local filmmaker Brian Gothong Tan.

But the exhibition doesn't end once you leave the museum.

If the viewer agrees to sponsor a tree for a minimum S$38 donation, WWF will continue to keep them updated on the growth of the tree and its impact on the wildlife and local communities in Rimbang Bali, a pristine rainforest area which is six times the size of Singapore.

Tech link

"We wanted an exhibition that would also have a real world impact," says Honor Hagar, executive director of ArtScience Museum, in the launch of the exhibition yesterday.

The exhibition will be free for the public, and there are about 50 devices on loan at any one time.

Explaining how the exhibition came about, Ms Hagar says the museum has long had ties with WWF, working on sustainable issues. It also talked to Google about possible collaborations.

It finally managed to tie up two themes: conservation and technology, when it found out that rainforest rehabilitation is a major priority with WWF.

Justin Quimby, senior product manager for Google's Tango, notes that the new software allows devices to better understand the world around us, though motion tracking, depth perception and area learning.

Motion tracking captures how the device moves through space, depth perception enables it to register objects, and area learning enables it to recognise the environment it's in.

"All that enables immersive experiences," he explains.

Based on this pilot project, Google plans to work with more museums for educational projects. This is the next generation of smartphone capabilities, he adds, and there are currently 35 Tango-enabled applications available through Google Playstore.

Lenovo's Phab 2 Pro, meanwhile, is the world's first Tango-enabled phone, powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 652.

Meanwhile, Elaine Tan, CEO of WWF Singapore, says that technology has helped close the divide between the urban city and the natural environmens, and makes it possible for technology to build empathy for the environment.

Rimbang Bali, which WWF adopted as a project last year, was chosen for the subject and case study for Into the Wild because the haze experienced in Singapore is attributed to forest burning in Indonesia. It's an issue that affects Singaporeans every year, Ms Tan points out.

Nature link

This conservation project then should hit close to home for Singapore. Rimbang Bali has 439,500 hectares of rainforest and is home to more than 170 bird sub-species, and no less than 50 mammals including iconic species such as Malayan tapirs, Malayan sun bears, clouded leopards and the Sumatran serow.

It's also an important tiger breeding area, serving as a "tiger corridor" connecting otherwise isolated tiger landscapes to the south, east and north of Rimbang Bali.

However, there are only two wildlife rangers assigned to this area by the Indonesian government as it's not demarcated as a national park.

WWF provided much of the footage and wildlife knowledge to the programmers who were drawing up the virtual rainforest.

"This is the first time we're engaging in this kind of public engagement - with a commitment to follow through with the public on their pledges by keeping them informed," says Ms Tan.

The organisation aims to plant some 20,000 fruit trees for the first phase of this programme to support both wildlife and local communities.

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