IUPUI students help preserve endangered species for future generations with augmented reality app

A toad in an array of cameras.View print quality image
Duncan Irschick uses an array of cameras to capture every angle of a species. Photo by Christine Shepard, University of Massachusetts

What does IUPUI have in common with the southern white rhino, flatback sea turtle and Caribbean reef shark?

No, they aren't firing off wicked jackknife dives in the Natatorium.

Under the direction of professor Zebulun Wood, a team of four informatics and computing students, led by Drennen Dooms, has been working for University of Massachusetts professor Duncan Irschick to create an educational app for Irschick's library of 3D models of animals, some of which are endangered.

"It's an international-level collaboration," Wood said. "Duncan goes all over the world scanning these endangered species, and now Drennen and his team are digitizing them and making a scavenger app that can go to zoos and conferences to generate awareness for Duncan and his mission to digitally preserve all these species that are about to disappear."

Dooms and fellow students Logan Moody, Darrin Caldwell and Joshua Armentrout are working on this project as part of Wood's New Media 420 course, Multimedia Project Development.

A man kneels next to an array of cameras.View print quality image
Duncan Irschick kneels next to his "Beastcam," which he uses to capture animals for 3D modeling. Photo courtesy of Duncan Irschick

In the class, students use their skill sets to create value for someone other than themselves, which isn't typical for your average student.

"Our clients come to us because they don't have other means to support their interest in a new technology or they aren't informed about the technology," Wood said. "We use that technology and our students' skill sets to create partnerships, which can then lead to internships or careers."

The program has partnered with well-recognized entities such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and United Way. You might think organizations would be hesitant to rely on student work, but the course's projects and partnerships on campus, in Indianapolis and around the world have created dozens of internships, capstones, careers and protected intellectual property in the three years since Wood took over the course.

"One of the hardest parts of working on a project like this is communicating with people all over the world," Dooms said. "If someone across the country isn't getting back to you in your preferred time frame, you can't really go knock on their door like you would with a professor down the hall."

Working with real-world restrictions and realities helped Dooms secure an internship with the local firm Vision Three, which specializes in virtual and augmented reality work.

So what exactly does this app do?

In short, the user starts with a silhouette of an endangered species, with a single white hexagon in the middle on a sheet of paper. When they point their camera at the picture, a 3D image of the animal appears on their phone screen, and they can see different angles of it as they move their phone around.

Some of the 3D models are created by Irschick, as well as collaborators and computer graphics artists, using a multi-camera rig to capture every angle of the animal and then piece them together into one model with software. They needed 20 cameras to capture each nook and cranny of the southern white rhino, keeping it scientifically accurate, and the model was constructed by CG artist Jer Bot.

"Working with Zeb's students is a great way to go," Irschick said. "The students gain really valuable experience -- creating an app is a very marketable skill, and you can take that skill set right to the job market. I think the only way you learn is by doing, and I wish more professors were doing what Zeb is."

You can catch the unveiling of the finished product this Friday, Dec. 13, at the School of Informatics and Computing during its annual capstone night.