Virtual reality immersion in the secrets of evolution

The visitor to the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, in Paris, may not know this, but there is more in common between him and a salmon than between a salmon and a hammerhead shark. And between the cedar of Lebanon and the phalloid amanite, it is from the second that it is closest. This is, among other things, what we learn in the” virtual reality cabinet ” of the museum, in other words a room dedicated to virtual reality experiences with an HTC Vive headset, located on the third floor of the Grand Gallery of Evolution.

It opens this Saturday, December 23, 2017 and, remarkably, it is not a temporary attraction at the end of the year but a permanent space, with five posts and which is intended to offer a real programming. ” It is in line with our other museographic installations, as well as screens, tablets, exhibitions ” insists Cyril Roguet, director of the galleries.

The proposed experiments have an educational vocation, intended to explain a notion. In this case, the first one tackles evolution in fifteen minutes (see the trailer below). To make it clear that there is no hierarchy between species and that all derive from a universal common ancestor that appeared 3.5 billion years ago (the unicellular organism Luca), the animation takes as its starting point a sphere. On the surface, 459 specimens are represented, from dandelion to sea urchin to monarch butterfly, giraffe, tyrannosaur, cassowary or homo sapiens. ” The message is that man is one species among others and that we must get rid of the idea of a scale of species where man would be at the top ” explains Guillaume Lecointre, professor-researcher at the Museum and scientific curator of this experiment.

Big data representation

The controllers that go with the helmet allow to manipulate this sphere, reduce it, enlarge it, dive inside and select thirty of these 459 species to learn more about them. A small quiz (the” Kinship Game”) is used to explain which, from an evolutionary point of view, are closer to each other and why (in this case, it is a frontal bone that places the salmon closer to humans than to the hammerhead shark). “This immersion could not have been conducted other than in virtual reality, so this animation does not replace anything that would already exist at the museum” specifies its president Bruno David.

It was the museum’s teams, including those in charge of digital, who designed the scenario, found this idea of the sphere with Luca at the center, selected the species to represent, defined the interactivity. On this basis, the software developments and were provided by Orange Labs researchers who, at the time, coincidentally, were working on the tree representation of big data. Moreover, originally, the Museum had the ambition to include two million species in the animation, by connecting the latter to scientific databases, before returning to more modest ambitions. But the idea of the tree structure is still there. Several agencies worked on graphic design, ergonomics and it was an independent illustrator who drew the 459 specimens.

From the material point of view, a technical trick allows two helmet wearers to be spotted by a common pair of spatialization sensors, which has made it possible to simplify the layout of the room. This one, with its light wood furniture that contrasts with the penumbra and decorum of the Great Gallery, was also designed by the museum.

In total, the project, despite the sober and seemingly simple result, took eighteen months. The challenge will now be to bring this virtual reality cabinet to life, by offering a different animation every day. The MNHN has already planned an upcoming seabed immersion experiment.

Practice: Travel to the heart of evolution, by reservation at the Grande Galerie de l’évolution in Paris; free during the Christmas holidays then 5 euros per session.

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