Augmented Reality at the Natural History Museum's Attenborough Studio

Richard Smith | 20 June 2011
a photo of two men talking in a studio with projections on the wall
Inside the Attenboroough Studio.© IVC Media
The Natural History Museum has recently opened its doors to its brand new Darwin Building. A spectacular, giant cocoon made from concrete, steel and glass, it is home to the Natural History Museum’s collections of specimens, as well as displays and interactive activities for the general public. It also houses the new Attenborough Studio, in which a very new and unique experience has been created for visitors.  

Free to the public, The Attenborough Studio runs an inspiring programme of daily films and live events. Giant squid, spiders dating, plants that bite and parasitoid wasps are some of the subjects of the Nature Live talks in the studio, as well as daily events, topical seasons and monthly evening debates.  

However, the latest and coolest attraction is the chance for visitors to use  "augmented reality" - the blending of computer graphics into real life to let audiences experience enhanced and individualised content through the medium of bespoke hand held touch-screen devices. The museum has worked with IVC Media and BBC Research Labs to create this.

Unlike virtual reality, where a simulated version of the real-world replaces the real one, augmented reality overlays imagery or text  onto a real-world view in real time.

A film, Who do you think you really are?, features a unique film-making technology which allows Sir David Attenborough to take the audience on a virtual journey back through our evolutionary past, where digitally overlaid extinct creatures appear to roam around in the studio.  

By simply moving an interactive handheld touch screen, it is possible for individuals in the audience to effectively interact with the environment in the Attenborough Studio from their own perspective.  

The augmented reality effect has been achieved with the use of three independent screens, web cams and the implementation of 80 LED markers located around the theatre. These allow the viewing angle of the handheld touch-screens to be detected. An image is rendered on the individual screens, altering according to how the device is moved.  

The individual handsets also allow the audience to send images to screens around the studio, interact with museum scientists, play with virtual specimens and take part in quizzes. Through the handheld device individuals can also see the augmented reality projected into the studio in real time so that an intricate tree of life appears to move within the studio itself.

Created as a state-of-the-art communication centre where innovation technology, museum specimens, live animals, spectacular natural history film footage and Museum scientists come together, the Attenborough Studio boasts an inspiring programme of free daily films and live events for the general public.

With the addition of augmented reality, exhibits are presented to the general public in a way which has never been seen before. It changes the way we see the world and has provided a new way to enhance and improve the visitor experience at the Natural History Museum.
  • For more information about augmented reality and its real-world applications, visit
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