Australian Exhibit Will Allow Users to Meet a Dinosaur in the Virtual World, Then Examine Its 3D Printed Counterpart

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If movies have taught me anything, one of the most important lessons may have come from Jurassic Park: just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should, and resurrecting carnivorous dinosaurs is a project that’s bound to go wrong, especially when you drop a bunch of tourists into their midst. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t use science and technology to let people hang out with dinosaurs in a much safer way.

In fairness, the Leaellynasaura is pretty unlikely to hurt anyone. The small, wallaby-like dinosaur was an herbivore, and a shy one at that. If you’ve never heard of this particular ornithopod, you’re not alone, but people will soon be learning a lot more about it thanks to an interactive exhibit created by Australia’s Deakin University. The Leaellynasaura was discovered in the 1980s, and was one of the most complete dinosaur skeletons ever found in Australia – the perfect subject for a 3D printed, virtual reality replication.

The project was initiated by Ben Hornan, head of Deakin’s Virtual Reality Lab, and Kaja Antlej, industrial design lecturer.


Dr. Kaja Antlej shows off a fossilized dinosaur tooth at the dig site. [Image: Cameron Best]

“We’re looking at how we can use virtual reality and 3D printing to help with providing educational experiences in a museum context,” Dr. Hornan said. “Dinosaurs are something that excites most people, including myself. So we thought 3D printing, dinosaurs and virtual reality would be a great combination.”


Eastern blue tongue lizard [Image: Peter Robertson/Wildlife Profiles Pty. Ltd.]

The exhibition will be at the National Wool Museum, which features more than just wool, and will center around a full-sized 3D printed Leaellynasaura, complete with 3D printed scales. Paleontologists believe that the dinosaur had skin similar to that of the modern eastern blue tongue lizard, so the project team scanned one of the lizards and will be 3D printing its scales, doing their best to replicate the contours and textures with the help of blue tongue lizard experts. The scales will then be placed on the 3D printed dinosaur.

The other part of the exhibit will be a virtual reality experience. Currently, a team of scientists and volunteers is participating in an archaeological dig at the site of what used to be a riverbed near Cape Otway, excavating fossils to be included in the exhibition. In 12 days, they’ve already found more than 200 pieces of dinosaur and mammal bone. Meanwhile, students from Deakin University are filming the dig, which will be included in the virtual reality part of the exhibit.

“In the museum with the virtual reality headset, which will provide you with audio and video, you can see inside, look around and see the dinosaur dig and then reach down and touch the tactile 3D-printed dinosaur,” said Dr. Hornan.

Visitors will also be able to approach a “live” Leaellynasaura in the virtual world – but they’ll need to be cautious to avoid scaring the shy dinosaur.

“It’ll probably be a little concerned about people coming into its forest and filming it. So you don’t have to feel scared, you might have to be a little bit careful yourself not to scare the dinosaur because it’ll be on the lookout for anything that’s going to harm it,” Dr. Hornan said. “Eventually if you get to know it maybe it could be a friend you could take out on a lead for a walk.”


[Image: Deakin University]

According to paleontologist Patricia Vickers-Rich, who discovered the Leaellynasaura skeleton along with her husband Tom Rich in the 1980s, the small dinosaur was about a meter tall, had very large eyes, and was a fast runner. Vickers-Rich, an emeritus professor at Monash University, has discovered several dinosaur species over the course of her decades-long career, and is excited to bring a lesser-known species to the public in an interactive way.

“I think what we’re trying to do is wake up the Australian public to the fact that we have some really cool unique material here,” she said. “Most people, when you talk to them on the street, you say ‘What dinosaurs do you know?’ And the dinosaurs they know are things from Mongolia, or South America or North America, and here in their own backyard they have the most wonderful little dinosaurs and some big ones. So I think that’s what’s driving me and everyone working on it, we want Australians to know they have some really, really cool stuff.”


[Image: Cameron Best]

The virtual environment in which the Leaellynasaura will live is going to be partially composed of imagery taken from the Geelong Botanic Gardens. The team believes that the dinosaur’s habitat was probably similar to the remaining rainforest left in Australia today.

“Virtual reality is part of what we do nowadays. And the basic value proposition of virtual reality is creating environments and contexts that either don’t exist or are difficult to access,” said Dr. Hornan. “So in the case of dinosaurs, they don’t exist anymore — their fossils do, but they don’t. And in the case of the dig, this environment is difficult to access so we can take this excavation here and take it to people who may not otherwise get the experience.”

Like Dr. Hornan said, dinosaurs are exciting to most people, and the Deakin University team isn’t the first to use 3D printing to replicate lifelike, life-sized dinosaurs. As far as they know, however, no one has created an exhibit quite like this one yet. The interactive, multimedia nature of the exhibition is bound to draw a lot of people – as is the fact that people generally really like dinosaurs. It may be a first, but it likely won’t be the last exhibit of its kind. Who knows, maybe the project will lead to an actual Jurassic Park of sorts – but one where there’s no risk of being devoured by an escaped velociraptor. Discuss in the 3D Printed Dinosaur forum at

[Source: ABC News Australia]


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