Calgary

Virtual experience brings Grande Cache tourists face-to-face with dinosaur, famous track site

Soon, visitors to Grande Cache, Alta., will be able to visit and interact with a hard-to-reach site that's home to more than 10,000 dinosaur tracks — thanks to virtual reality technology.

Lethbridge College team created virtual and augmented reality experiences

By scanning the image on the tabletop using the Snapchat app, a scene featuring a dinosaur suddenly appears in the room through the screen. The augmented reality experience was created by former Lethbridge College student Alexander Mayer. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

Standing on a wooden platform next to a rocky incline, it's best not to turn around too quickly.

As high up are you are, it's easy to experience vertigo. And there's a job to do: carefully plaster and cast a dinosaur track you've discovered on the side of the cliff.

This is the scenario visitors can experience by slipping on a virtual reality headset at the Grand Cache Tourism and Interpretive Centre, about 400 kilometres west of Edmonton.

Without the virtual reality technology, few would get to experience this remote Alberta heritage site. 

The actual Grand Cache Dinosaur Tracksite is on a sheer cliff at the edge of the Rocky Mountains, about 20 kilometres north of the hamlet. It's the only large-scale area of its kind in Canada, according to the Alberta Registrar of Historic Places.

Jesze Kaszas, who worked on the project, stands beside some of the preserved dinosaur tracks in the M.D. of Greenview, about 20 kilometres north of Grande Cache. The Lethbridge College team used a technique called photogrammetry to capture the area in great detail. (Submitted by Lethbridge College)

"This is our way of providing that content for individuals who are interested without having to send them, you know, in an unsafe place, or exposing those tracks to the public," said Jenny Daubert, tourism supervisor for the Municipal District of Greenview.

Soon, visitors to Grande Cache will be able to visit and interact with the site virtually through an experience created at Lethbridge College. The work was done by faculty and students participating in the Spatial Technologies Applied Research and Training Initiative.

The dinosaur track site was first unearthed by open pit mining operations at the former Smoky River Coal Mine in 1969.

Along a cliff face stretching about a kilometre, approximately 10,000 dinosaur footprints are embedded — evidence of the creatures who roamed there during the Cretaceous period. Due to shifts in the earth, the tracks are now displayed vertically and are difficult to access.

The area containing the tracks is privately leased, which adds another layer of inaccessibility to the site.

This scene at the dinosaur tracksite can be experienced through the virtual reality program created by a team at Lethbridge College. (Submitted by Lethbridge College)

Building a virtual world

In order to take people to the location virtually, Lethbridge College instructor and researcher Allyson Cikor visited site with a team and took detailed images of the tracks through a process known as photogrammetry.

The end result, after a little over a year of work, is a virtual experience that offers 360-degree immersion and incorporates spatial audio technology and a narration track.

"It's just really hard to comprehend how many footprints, how big it is, the scale of the site, and also appreciate how hard it is to get there," said Cikor.

Allyson Cikor, an instructor and researcher at Lethbridge College who worked on the project, demonstrates a portion of the virtual reality experience that requires dusting off a dinosaur print in the cliff. (Submitted by Lethbridge College)

"That's the cool thing about the VR project … you can sense the scale, you can stand right up to it."

Cikor worked with program graduate Benjamin Blackwell to design the virtual reality experience.

Snapchat dinosaurs

Another part of the tourism centre experience will be an augmented reality scene accessed through Snapchat.

Former Lethbridge College student Alexander Mayer, who is now working toward a degree in computer science at the University of Calgary, worked for a month developing the scene that appears after scanning a marker installed at the tourism centre.

Once scanned, a dinosaur appears in the room (when viewed through a smartphone) as do giant insects, foliage from the time period and shifting ground that eventually reveals the famous tracks people associate with the site.

"I hope it's something that intrigues people," said Mayer, who had never attempted a project like this before.

"It was definitely something that I'd love to do again."

Mike McCready, the president's applied research chair in virtual and augmented reality at the college, pulls up software showcasing how the Snapchat feature was developed. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC)

Projects like these highlight the possibilities of preserving important historic sites and allowing more people to access them from just about anywhere, said Mike McCready, the president's applied research chair in virtual and augmented reality at the college.

"Being able to provide ways for people to experience that remotely, in full sense experience, I think is going to make a lot of headway in protecting natural and man-made sites."

The Walking with Dinosaurs VR/AR project was funded by the provincial government's Community and Regional Economic Support program and the M.D. of Greenview.

While the virtual reality piece is now complete, the tourism centre is waiting until it is safe to have visitors use the equipment in compliance with COVID-19 protocols — probably by this spring.

After the finishing touches are put on the Snapchat augmented reality portion, people who visit the centre will be able to scan a display to view it.

Tourism supervisor Daubert says she hopes one day people will be able to safely enjoy the actual dinosaur track site, but in the meantime the interpretive centre offers these immersive alternatives.

"There is a new kind of push for museums and interpretive centres to have kind of more interactive displays," she said.

"We find that people engage and they retain information a lot more when we can connect with their senses."


CBC Calgary has launched a Lethbridge bureau to help tell your stories from southern Alberta with reporter Jennifer Dorozio. Story ideas and tips can be sent to jennifer.dorozio@cbc.ca.

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