Escape from Antarctica: In the Footsteps of Shackleton

Escape from Antarctica: In the Footsteps of Shackleton was no ordinary exhibition. Scott Ashton’s recently designed augmented reality (AR) experience at the Australian National Maritime Museum depicts one of the greatest adventure stories, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917), in an entirely new way. 

AR brings to life dioramas (a physical 3d model) of the ill-fated Expedition. After being trapped in sea ice for nearly a year, the party lost their ship The Endurance to the crushing flow. Using remains of the wreck, Shackleton and a select crew modified a lifeboat to sail the treacherous journey to South Georgia – one of the greatest feats of small boat sailing. The rescue party still had to traverse an unmapped mountain range before eventually finding help. Miraculously, all 28 original crewmembers returned home safely.

Shackleton

Scott, who will be speaking at the Vision VR/AR Summit 2016 in Los Angeles Feb. 10-11, talks about how these new technologies are transforming the museum industry in this exclusive interview.

How have you seen AR evolve over the years?

AR has been around for a long time now, but when I started playing with the Vuforia SDK back in 2011/2012, I immediately knew that it was time to get involved. The ubiquity and power of devices, married with Vuforia’s ease of use when used with Unity, were important catalysts. There is a magical quality to seeing “real life” mixed with the virtual. Though people get used to that pretty quickly, seeing people experience AR for the first time is a beautiful thing.

How did your game development background help you when exploring AR?

Having spent years building games translates well to being technically equipped to build AR experiences. However, only after building the experience did I understand the big differences between a game player and a museum patron. The average visitor browses content in a very casual way, meaning some digital content was only being discovered by the very few. Although we could have created simplified experiences for the majority, I don’t regret any design choices. I took the project on to try something a bit different.

Can you detail your AR project?

Exhibition designer Chris Mether and I had been looking for an opportunity to collaborate in the museum space. We both felt AR would be a great fit for the Shackleton story. Luckily for us, the National Australian Maritime Museum loved the idea of using AR too – a perfect complement to the more traditional exhibition pieces. There are four dioramas, each quite distinct, that are “brought to life” when you point the installed iPad at them.

In Crossing South Georgia, we render a satellite-reconstruction of South Georgia over a 3d printed map of the island.  What in the past would have been a static map with text overlays is now something interactive, containing rich layers of content. Our piece tells the story of the island crossing and contains amazing Frank Hurley scenery photography, as well 3D animated Antarctic nature (placed around the island for the visitor to “discover”). The weather is also changeable — just like the real South Georgia weather. Looking at a table and seeing fluffy clouds hanging over an island is quite lovely.

What activities do you do to stay relevant in this field?

Being “relevant” isn’t something I consciously try to do, but being a small outfit I’m always looking for ways to be more efficient, or find something to give me an edge – looking for ways to create content more efficiently and easily. As a game programmer, I was always interested in trying to do things that I felt hadn’t been done before. It’s in my nature. If I’m lucky, I manage to stay “relevant” in the process.

What was your first “win” that made you confident that you were doing the right thing?

It’s a great feeling to create something that completely aligns with your original vision. There were a few moments in this show that did that for me. One example is the James Caird exhibit. The James Caird was the modified lifeboat that Shackleton and his crew of five sailed for 16 days from Antarctica to South Georgia –considered perhaps the greatest-ever small boat journey. The exhibit consists of a glass case containing a replica model suspended over a map of their journey. I thought it would be spectacular if the glass case became “a cube of ocean” with a computer-generated James Caird being tossed around on the waves when you point the iPad at it. We had some great reference video footage from Tim Jarvis’s journey in a replica James Caird (featured on Discovery Channel). Given the limitations imposed by the iPad hardware, and the ambitious technical scope, the end result honestly exceeded my expectations.

How do you avoid being complacent in AR?

How is it even possible to be complacent in such a changing discipline? The field is just being introduced to the mass market right now. Perhaps in a couple of years people will become complacent. Right now though, it feels like there’s something new and interesting happening everyday – being complacent would be hard.

Where do you see AR five years from now?

Five years has historically been the traditional hardware life cycle. By the end of five years, I would expect the current hardware phase to have run its course — better form factor, performance, and lower latency. Perhaps light field technology will have emerged as something viable.  I guess the launch of Magic Leap will give us hints.

What role do you see a cross-platform, cross-discipline conference like the VR Summit playing in that future?

AR content creation is clearly multidisciplinary. It’s immersive and believable nature means that almost everyone could conceive a use of such a general tool. Given its generally applicable nature, many other fields will open up as a consequence. It’s in fact opened up as a field unto itself.

What opportunities do you see across the mobile, PC, console and other platforms for AR/VR?

Those platforms feel like they’re getting older even as we speak. I suspect we’ll see hardware that is more specialized at creating VR/AR experiences, rather than the current paradigm of shoehorning VR onto old platforms.

What impact do you see AR having on the global museum industry, especially with getting younger attendees in the door?

It goes without saying that the museums of the world are very keen to engage the next generation of museum visitors — and building interactive technology pieces is probably the best way of doing that. In using tech like AR, museums have an opportunity to bring a largely static experience to life, and yet, still retain features that more traditional visitors enjoy.  In these early days there is still a “magical” quality about AR, but it won’t be long before (young) audiences demand more. We are still a technology iteration away from being freed up in AR. Once we have real-time depth information about a scene, then we can really bring things to life. I’m very excited about the potential of Project Tango and Microsoft’s HoloLens.

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