Silica-Encased Plankton AR
by Rob Rothfarb • June 3, 2016
For the Everything Matters program at the Exploratorium, our graphic design studio creates a collectible printed card for each element of the periodic table the series explores. Last month, the element Silicon was next in line and I had the opportunity to create a design, evocative of that element. As an avid rock collector and computer geek, I wanted to create a design that brought together my passions. Some visual elements that I incorporated do reflect those interests, but, as I was researching silicon, I encountered some wonderful images of different varieties of plankton by 19th century German biologist Ernst Haeckel that he drew in the early 1900s. One image in particular caught my eye, of the radiolarian-related species Phaedaria. It's silica-encased skeleton seemed more like a spacecraft than a sea creature. The spikey, spherical shape lept off of the page at me when I looked at the drawing and that gave me the idea to do just that-make it jump off the page, or in this case, the card.
We'd created an augmented-reality cover in celebration of the Exploratorium's 40th anniversary for Explore, our formerly published quarterly magazine, so I imagined activating the Everything Matters card design similarly with an AR element for silicon. I began by creating a 3D model of Haeckeliana porcellana, my spikey new friend from Haeckel's 1904 masterwork, Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature). Using the Layar AR toolkit and mobile browser, I created an augmented layer using the model which would be triggered on a phone or tablet screen when users scan the 2D image designed for the front of the card using the Layar AR Browser mobile app. The image's digital signature is recognized by the Layar cloud service which then communicates with the Exploratorium's web server to fetch and render my 3D plankton model along with an über silicon-inspired audio track created by Exploratorium composer Wayne Grim. A web link triggered when you touch the Phaedaria on your device screen connects back to a page with details about the plankton that Haeckel depicted. You can change the angle of your device in relation to the image to look at the Phaedaria from different viewpoints and you can use the Layar browser's "pop out" feature to disengage the displayed augment from the camera view and then use your fingers to zoom and rotate the animated image. There's also a fun snapshot feature accessible through the Everything Matters button at the top of the browser view.
While the cards are a limited-edition item (you have to come to an Everything Matters program at the Exploratorium in San Francisco to get one), you can download and print this web version for yourself and see this AR interpretation of the Phaedaria that inspired Haeckel. Download the free Layar AR Browser, available for iPhone and Android, and use it to scan the image to enjoy the spikiness.