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onCampus--Ohio State's faculty/staff news

Vol. 38, No. 18

By: Victoria Ellwood

Students help bring Jane the dinosaur to life

Jane the dinosaur may have lived 66 million years ago, but a group of students from Ohio State’s Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design have helped bring the young Tyrannosaurus rex to “life.”

The students, led by ACCAD Director Maria Palazzi and Graphics Research Specialist Matthew Lewis, were engaged by a small museum in Rockford, Ill., to help create a technologically savvy, interactive exhibit spotlighting the museum’s remarkable new inhabitant. Jane — an incredibly well-preserved skeleton of a juvenile T. rex — was discovered in 2001 in Hell Creek, Mont., by staff and volunteers from the Burpee Museum of Natural History. The group returned a year later and began painstakingly excavating the dinosaur bones. Over the next two years, they spent more than 10,000 hours gingerly picking Jane’s bones out of rock and planning a new, permanent exhibit that would tell Jane’s story and feature her fully restored skeleton.

That exhibit, Jane: Diary of a Dinosaur, opened June 29 at Burpee Museum in Rockford, about 60 miles west of Chicago. The 2,000-square-foot exhibit tells visitors Jane’s tale and features hands-on interactive stations, computer-generated animation, colorful graphics and, as its centerpiece, Jane’s fully restored skeleton, which is the most complete juvenile T. rex on display in the world.

For about six months before the exhibit opened, Ohio State graduate students studying at ACCAD worked in tandem with museum experts and paleontologists to develop the high-tech exhibit components. The students — Keith Kelley, Katie Lynch, Cara Christeson, Shana Burns, Brent Zorich, Danny Guinn, Tyler Ayres and Min Lee — did everything from carefully researching Jane’s world of millions of years ago to developing touch-screen design, 3-D computer animation, model building, surfacing, lighting, texturing and sound design. Their significant involvement was supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

According to Palazzi, the students and museum staff formed a productive partnership. “The teamwork that existed among the ACCAD students and the museum people was incredible,” she said. “They came together striving for a common vision. The museum representatives fostered the exploration of the dinosaur’s life and turned to us for advice on computer-generated animation. In turn, our students had to figure out how to use our advanced technology to really teach people about Jane in a museum setting. It was a great learning experience.”

Graduate student Keith Kelley said he was particularly amazed at the collaborative aspect of this project. “The people at the museum were very much open to our collaboration and they were very creative,” he said. “Going back and forth with them using videoconferencing was a real benefit from an animator’s perspective and it really helped to have that direct visual interaction with them.”

Specifically, the ACCAD students helped create numerous components of Jane’s exhibit, including:

• Interactive touch-screen stations, which invite visitors to explore information about dinosaurs and about Jane. One station explores theories about dinosaur extinction by letting visitors “hunt” for meteorite craters. Another is an in-depth investigation about what Jane’s bones can tell us about her age and how she lived and died. The students researched each topic, created the graphics and animation and programmed the touch-screen stations to be accessible, user-friendly and fun for visitors.

• A one-and-a-half-minute 3-D computer animated film that appears on a plasma screen monitor. This film, Jane’s World, shows viewers the barren Montana landscape of today. With a touch of a button, the scene changes to the lush forest it was 66 million years ago when Jane lived. The students used computer graphics and animation to create the transformation, placing the proper plants, trees and other vegetation into the setting. They also added computer-animated animals that may have lived with Jane.

“They built the models, applied surface textures and added realistic, animated movement. They also did the backgrounds, lighting and sound for the film,” Palazzi said.

The exhibit also includes the recreation of a rustic Montana camp and, of course, Jane herself.

“One of the cool things about this project was there was so much work to do in so many areas that we all got to get involved in ways that matched our career goals,” said graduate student Cara Christeson. “I was able to work on the asteroid animation for one of the touch-screens. Special effects is one of my career goals, so it was a great chance to dig into special effects and end up with a portfolio piece. It was a great experience.”

As the students worked on each part of the exhibit, they had to keep in mind the viewing habits of museum visitors. “It was a fascinating experience. These students had this incredible technology, but we are using it in a museum environment where we don’t want people to stay at any one place too long,” said Barbara Ceiga, museum project manager. “We want visitors to keep moving on to something else, to the next part of the exhibit. The students adapted to those parameters really well.”

Ceiga is thrilled with the result of Jane’s exhibit. “Maria and her students exceeded every expectation we had. They were incredibly professional every step of the way,” she said. “Each part of the team had its strengths and we had weekly videoconferences to discuss progress and provide feedback. It was truly a collaboration — the kind of team you hope for but rarely achieve.”

To learn more about ACCAD, visit www.accad.osu.edu.

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