Natural History Museum Partners with USC for Augmented Reality Experiences at La Brea Tar Pits

Published: September 11, 2018
Category: Press Releases | News

Discoveries from the iconic excavation site will be the linchpin in an effort to understand how to most effectively use a technology growing in popularity.

A recent boom in augmented reality (AR) technology is leading educational institutions to explore new ways of teaching, where virtual scenes are mixed with real-life locations and objects. However, more research is needed in order to understand when and how AR can be leveraged to increase knowledge rather than merely entertain visitors.

In a new partnership between the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County (which includes the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum) and University of Southern California, researchers will seek to understand how best to design augmented reality experiences for effective learning. The project is funded by a new grant from the National Science Foundation totaling $2 million. This research will compare learning and engagement from visitors interacting with various versions of an AR experience that differ in visual immersion (touchscreen vs. low-cost 3D headset) and interactivity (selecting vs. manipulating virtual objects).

Emily Lindsey, assistant curator and excavation site director for the La Brea Tar Pits, and Benjamin Nye, the director of learning science at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, are the principal investigators. Gale Sinatra, the Stephen H. Crocker Professor of Education Psychology at the USC Rossier School of Education, and William Swartout, chief technology officer for USC ICT, are co-PIs.

A key aspect of the project is to use AR to provide additional information about what visitors see to help dispel misconceptions. “Augmented reality offers a powerful medium to share how science happens at the La Brea Tar Pits,” Nye says. “AR can show hidden worlds connected to what you would normally see with your eyes, such as seeing the pits in different time periods. These can tell the story of not just what we know, but how we know what we know.”

Located in the heart of metropolitan Los Angeles, the La Brea Tar Pits are among the world’s most famous fossil localities. Opened to the public in 1977, the La Brea Tar Pits Museum served 418,000 visitors last year year with displays of Ice Age fossils from asphaltic deposits, as well as with live demonstrations of the paleontology process. With a vast collection of millions of fossils, the La Brea Tar Pits constitute an unparalleled resource for understanding environmental change in Los Angeles during the last 50,000 years of Earth’s history.

The new partnership will draw on USC’s expertise in technology, design and student engagement and the Natural History Museum’s expertise in paleontology and content-rich exhibits to create an experience that will help museum visitors engage with the scientific process, in order to both improve understanding of science and reduce scientific misconceptions. Under the partnership, visitors to the museum will explore AR time portals where they gather evidence to distinguish between competing hypotheses and update their own hypotheses as they find new evidence.

“Certain scientific concepts, like the nature of geologic time, have historically been difficult for people to wrap their minds around,” Lindsey says. “This partnership allows us to explore the ways that new, immersive technologies can help people understand and connect with these concepts more fully.”



The USC Institute for Creative Technologies develops award-winning advanced immersive experiences that leverage groundbreaking research technologies and the art of entertainment to simulate human capabilities. Influencing the trajectory of technological exploration and advancement, USC ICT’s mission is to use basic and applied research that benefits learning, education, health, human performance, and knowledge. This work is a collaboration between the USC ICT Learning Science and Mixed Reality (MxR) groups.


The mission of the USC Rossier School of Education is to prepare leaders to achieve educational equity through research, policy and practice. Consistently ranked as one of the nation’s best education schools by U.S. News and World Report, USC Rossier draws on innovative thinking and collaborative research to improve learning opportunities and outcomes, address disparities and solve the most intractable problems in education.


The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum is one of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, which also includes the Natural History Museum and the William S. Hart Museum. The asphalt seeps at La Brea represent the only consistently active and urban Ice Age excavation site in the world. This makes the campus a unique site museum–where fossils are discovered, excavated, prepared and displayed in one place. Outside, the remains of plants and animals trapped during the last 50,000 years ago are revealed in active excavation sites. Inside, visitors see the next step of the process, as scientists and volunteers clean, repair and identify these discoveries in the transparent Fossil Lab. The museum then displays the final result: extraordinary specimens of saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and mastodons, as well as fossilized remains of microscopic plant remains, insects and reptiles.