Since February 2017, visitors to Singapore’s ArtScience Museum have found themselves wandering through a rainforest. OK a virtual rainforest, but the permanent exhibition called Into the Wild: An Immersive Virtual Adventure is nevertheless a ground-breaking achievement, a remarkable union of cutting-edge technology and imaginative adaptation of spaces that weaves a compelling story.
Harnessing the power of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), Google, Lenovo, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Singapore digital production company MediaMonks, and Singaporean multi-media artist Brian Gothong Tan, reimagined more than 1,000 sqm of the museum as a canvas for examining challenges from deforestation to species extinction faced by Southeast Asian rainforests.
Via the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro smartphone loaded with Tango, an AR platform developed by Google, a museum wall, for example, transforms on the phone’s 15-centimetre screen into a verdant jungle where tapirs roam. Corridors become forest paths, waterfalls flow down the walls, and visitors can crane their necks to see a virtual canopy overhead.
“We are always exploring new and bold innovations,” says Honor Harger, executive director of ArtScience Museum. “The idea came out of conversations with Google. When we realised we had a shared passion for the environment and conservation, we invited WWF to come into the wild with us. WWF ensured that everything we designed for our digital rainforest was scientifically accurate and based on what wildlife rangers see in Southeast Asian ecosystems.”
The exhibit meanders from Basement 2 up to Level 4, ending with an animated fable by Tan projected on a curving, 20-metre-high wall, tracing the journey of animals from creation to destruction to rebirth. It also connects virtual actions to real-life consequences—for every tree planted on the screen by a participant, the WWF pledges to plant a real tree in Rimbang Baling, one of the last untouched rainforests in Sumatra and a vital habitat for the threatened Sumatran tiger.
In addition to the traditional gaming aspects of the experience, Into the Wild is a textbook example of finely focused teamwork producing a riveting tale. The show straddles entertainment and education, seamlessly engaging visitors with real-life, topical environmental issues through richly colourful, interactive storytelling. “The idea behind is not just to showcase our technological expertise or augment reality; what we are trying to do is to improve reality,” says Khoo Hung Chuan, general manager, Lenovo Malaysia & Singapore.
The exhibit also aims to foster greater understanding of the world beyond buildings. “In an urban city like Singapore, it can be challenging to create an appreciation for nature,” explains Kim Stengert, communications director, WWF Singapore. “Into The Wild provides us with an opportunity to close the divide between our urbanised world and the natural environment…creating a better understanding of how our daily actions impact the natural world.”
Harger echoes those sentiments. “One of the major challenges that conservation organisations such as WWF face is how to create an emotional connection between an environmental problem and the audience. The whole experience is designed to create empathy between our visitors and the natural world.”
The interface that underpins the staging and storytelling is Tango, utilising three key technologies in concert with the Lenovo phone—motion tracking (seeing a location in a 3D space), depth perception (analysing the surroundings by detecting surfaces and obstacles), and area learning (informing the phone of its location). Such computer vision enables devices to understand their position relative to everything around them—the same way you might use your eyes to find your way to a room, know where in the room you are, and know where the floor, the walls, and objects around you are.
The exhibit’s message continues after participants leave the museum: visitors that make a tree pledge will receive their tree’s exact coordinates so they can watch it grow on Google Earth, a tangible memento.