Armed with 3D scans of the most complete supermassive dinosaur skeleton ever unearthed, and the latest paleontology and biomechanical research, a graduate student in Westphal College’s Digital Media program, is bringing a giant dinosaur to life in virtual reality.
From the time they were unearthed in Patagonia in 2005 the fossil remains of a supermassive dinosaur, dubbed Dreadnoughtus schrani have inspired curiosity and creativity. The exceptionally complete fossilized skeleton, of one of the largest Titanosaurs ever discovered, came to Drexel at an exciting time for technological applications in paleontology research.
High-resolution laser scanning of the bones, which is now a common practice in the field, made Dreadnoughtus accessible to researchers from around the globe. It also has opened new research paths for students at Drexel who are trying to better understand the way dinosaurs might have moved.
A pair of them have turned the scans into a 3D-printed, scale model of one of the dinosaur’s limbs and created a test rig to study its mechanics. But building a fully actuated physical model of a dinosaur — limb by limb — is a process that plods at about the same pace as the great creature (or so we hypothesize).
Drexel’s visionary is Valentina Feldman, a graduate student in Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, who learned about the Dreadnoughtus discovery as a freshman and has since taken up the challenge of recreating the giant dinosaur in immersive, 3-D virtual reality as her master’s thesis.
“I’ve always been interested in paleontology — I don’t think I ever grew out of my ‘dinosaur phase’ as a kid,” Feldman said. “Dinosaurs can positively engage a child’s imagination, by getting them to think about ancient ecosystems, geological time and other scientific concepts. I knew I wanted to produce a piece of immersive VR media for my thesis, and I just needed an appropriate subject.”
Dreadnoughtus was the perfect candidate, because of the high-quality 3D fossil scans, and the added benefit of access to the paleontologist who discovered it, Ken Lacovara. Feldman met Lacovara — then a professor at Drexel, now a dean at Rowan University — and his students through Emma Fowler, an undergraduate studying paleoart reconstruction, who would become Feldman’s research and production partner on the project. And the pair worked out plans for the virtual reality project while volunteering on one of Lacovara’s dig sites in New Jersey.
Not only did Feldman have access to the scanned bones of one of the largest animals to walk the Earth, but she also had a team of visual effects experts among the faculty at Westphal College, to advise on the technical hurdles of the project. This included the development of a custom virtual reality camera rig by Drexel’s Animation program director Nick Jushchyshyn; walk cycle animation critiques from medical animator Dave Mauriello and Dreamworks character rigger Evan Boucher; and surfacing advice from visual effects artist Jeremy Fernsler. Even John Berton, a visual effects supervisor who worked at Industrial Light & Magic during the development of the first Jurassic Park film, pointed her toward a number of seminal films that addressed the issues of scale and storytelling in visual media.
Bone by bone, Feldman and Fowler first assembled a digital version of the giant skeleton, working closely with Lacovara and the paleontology doctoral students in his lab. By articulating the 3D scanned fossils and sculpting the missing bones based on closely related titanosaurs, they were able to reconstruct the full skeleton.
To begin the process of animating the movement of the skeleton, Feldman drew on the research of Kristyn Voegele, a paleontology doctoral student in Lacovara’s lab, and David McDevitt, a recent graduate whose studies in the College of Engineering’s Laboratory for Biological Systems Analysis connected him to paleontologists studying Dreadnoughtus.
Voegele and McDevitt collaborated to build a scale, mechanical model of Dreadnoughtus’s forelimb in order to study its biomechanics. Data gleaned from Voegele and McDevitt’s flexing dinosaur limb fed directly into Feldman’s digital model — directing how the digital versions of the bones and soft tissues connected to form its joints and allowed movement.
Taking a cue from Voegele and other paleontologists studying new species, Feldman and Fowler used a the physiology of existing animals, such as crocodiles, birds, elephants, and rhinoceros as references for the muscle placement and posture of the giant dinosaur.
To guide her digital design work, Feldman observed the animation and CGI techniques used in a number of films to create dinosaurs — including one of her early inspirations, Jurassic Park.
“My parents claim I was the only child in the theatre that was silent and wide-eyed during all of Jurassic Park,” Feldman said. “I grew up watching nature documentaries on Animal Planet, so I never thought dinosaurs were scary. Since then, I’ve been enamored by the idea that animation could be used to resurrect ancient animals and show their lifestyles and behaviors, and that absolutely carried through to the development of my DreadnoughtusVR documentary. I’m very excited to be working with subject matter so near and dear to my heart.”
The goal of Feldman’s project is to recreate that excitement, and the curiosity it inspires, for a new generation of youngsters becoming exposed to virtual reality. This new technology allows viewers to look around an immersive environment through a pair of VR goggles, getting them up close and personal with the digital Dreadnoughtus.
Several months into the development of this project, Samsung GearVR released its own sauropod VR encounter at a Jurassic World preview event. While the experience, which was produced by ILM, the same studio that created the original digital dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, consisted of a brief encounter with a long-necked dinosaur, Feldman knew her project could be just as visually appealing but with an embedded educational component.
“Our six-minute film has a little more educational substance to it,” Feldman said. “It opens in the Academy of Natural Sciences and follows a narration by Dr. Lacovara explaining details about the discovery, reconstruction, and significance of Dreadnoughtus.”
Dreadnoughtus makes its first VR appearance in ANS’s Dinosaur Hall, while a VR Lacovara explains the paleontology research that takes place there. Shortly after, the scene transitions to a beautiful desert environment that approximates the location in Patagonia where Dreadnoughtus was discovered.
As the experience continues, hundreds of 3D fossils assemble themselves into the gigantic skeleton, which walks through the desert environment as layers of muscle and skin are added.
The documentary concludes with fully fleshed Dreadnoughtus being compared on a giant balance scale to nine T.rexes, 12 elephants and a Boeing 747 — to demonstrate just how massive the animal was in life.
Feldman plans to preview the piece for the first time at Westphal College’s Digital Media Showcase on June 5. Via JauntVR, it will be available for free download and online viewing on all common VR platforms including Google Cardboard and the Occulus Rift in July.
“I hope this documentary will provide a way for classrooms of students to see a dinosaur up close and personal, either in preparation for a trip to a museum or as part of their curriculum,” Feldman said. “To my knowledge, this is one of the first times that laser-scanned fossil data has been used in the production of Virtual Reality content. I hope it’s just the beginning.”
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