ERIE, Pa. — Zombies! Ants! Parasitic fungus!
The new augmented reality project at Penn State Behrend’s School of Science complex could serve as the set for a drive-in horror movie.
It’s actually an interactive art installation, and a clever way to teach spore trajectories: Visitors step into the sculpture and are transformed, through augmented reality, into an ant, living peacefully beneath the forest canopy. They are soon attacked by a simulated fungus, which turns them into “zombie” ants. They spread the fungus to other ants, extending the life of the fungus.
The project began when David Hughes, the Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Chair in Global Food Security at Penn State’s Department of Entomology, looked for a new way to illustrate spore trajectories in a manuscript. He reached out to Daryl Branford, director of Science-Art Initiatives at the SciArt Group at the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences.
“After seeing the data, I thought, ‘This is more than a visualization,’” Branford said. “People need to experience the data.”
He brought in Talley Fisher, a senior research artist at the SciArt Group. She used aluminum to create the metal elements of an interactive sculpture.
The biggest challenge, Fisher said, was to design ways to visualize complex scientific processes. The team used 3D animation and augmented reality to immerse visitors in a biological process.
“The physical environment allows you to feel as if you are really in a forest, with leaves above you,” Fisher said. “We use hexagons to symbolize sugars – a food source for the ants – and chemical symbols in the background that represent the pheromone the ants deposit on the paths.”