TEXAS A&M (US)—A new virtual environment that allows humans to see and hear some of the extreme ranges of vision and hearing that animals have could help reinvent the way museums teach about the natural world.

Such immersive exhibits would allow visitors, for example, the chance to experience birds’ ultraviolet vision or whales’ ultrasonic hearing, says Carol LaFayette, who leads the team at Texas A&M University.

Participants at the international Siggraph (short for Special Interest Group on GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques) conference in New Orleans in August had the opportunity to experience the program, titled “I’m Not There,” by donning 3-D glasses and using a Wii controller to navigate through the exhibit.

Surround-sound recordings of animals in the wild enhance the experience, and LaFayette drew from her specialty in fine art and collaborated with scientists to flesh out her exhibits with scenes set on Cocos Island, located southwest of Costa Rica.

“The Viz lab is about the synthesis between art and science, so we inserted artistic elements into these scenes to make them more realistic and interesting,” LaFayette says. “We take ultra- or infrasonic sound and ultraviolet and infrared light and scale it down so humans can sense it. It’s still not the same way animals experience it, but it gives a sense of what they see and hear.

“Being in an immersive system gives you a different sense of space and sound. You experience practically everything but the scents, and we could probably integrate those, too.”

A similar show is planned at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta this winter. Meanwhile, Texas A&M professor Fred Parke, who developed the system, is working on an LCD version.

LaFayette envisions installing similar systems in museums. “The projects we created, we envision using in a science or natural history museum so more people can experience it,” she says. “Think of all the exhibits that could come to life—and in a very green way. I call it the end of taxidermy.”

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