Prototyping Interactive Data Viz: 2. CT SCANS WITH HOLOCUBE

The following is a deeper dive into one of the projects developed at the American Museum of Natural History in FY17 to help us better understand how to bring the digital work of Museum scientists to visitors through emerging media. Read the top-level findings from the year or carry on below. 



  • CT scan of a mako shark, provided by John Maisey and John Denton
  • CT scan of a microfossil, provided by Bushra Hussaini
  • CT scan of a ghost bat, provided by Abbie Curtis

Technology: Holocube hand-held with iPad tablet

What we did: We used the CT scan of the mako shark, as well as scans of a microfossil, weevil and ghost bat, to develop a Holocube experience that required much less facilitation than our first prototype. Manipulating the Holocube in one hand (see picture above), and viewing it through the camera of a smartphone or tablet, visitors could examine the scans as 3D images on the screen. They could rotate the specimen by turning the cube, and even go inside the specimen by bringing the cube closer to the camera. Additional touchscreen features allowed them to play with the specimens in other ways (e.g., watching the shark swim and bite; bisecting the microfossil into halves).

We conducted 6 hours of public evaluation over five sessions (188 people observed; 88 people interviewed).

Key finding: Although the experience is less immersive, Holocube has some advantages over wearable devices: it requires less facilitation, encourages social interaction, can accommodate a larger flow of users, is relatively cheap and easy to deploy—and still provides a novelty factor.

Other findings:

  • Handables are compelling and intuitive. Visitors love augmented objects they can hold in their hands. It seems to satisfy a tactile need. And while the novelty of the experience was a draw, it was also easy for users to master and required little or no technical facilitation.
  • Unstructured exploration is engaging. Users enjoyed the moment of designed discovery – the shark swimming or the microfossil opening up – but were equally engaged, if not more so, when exploring specimens in a non-directed way. The scans themselves held fascinations. Without a time limit, some users spent 10 minutes or longer exploring the CT scans.
  • Facilitation of content, not technology. Many people were eager to learn about the scans (e.g., what microfossils are and why scientists study them) from facilitators, who were freed by the simplicity of the technology from having to train people how to use it. The Holocube seems like they could be a good fit as augmentation of Teaching Carts and Saltz Carts (particularly as these carts contain objects so the connection between actual and digital is readily at hand).
  • A setup that encourages social interaction. While only one person can hold the cube at a time, multiple people can see the screen–it was large and mounted in place. The setup seemed to encourage interaction, with groups huddled around the screen, commenting on the image and giving instructions to the cube-holder.
  • Youth can have a role. Teens were involved in producing assets (i.e., scanning a microfossil) and in facilitating the Holocube station. With proper training and supervision, teens could be incorporated into the development process, as well as facilitating the experience with visitors (e.g. the Saltz Carts).
  • One asset, many applications. The same digital asset can be ported to different digital tools. This opens tremendous possibilities to leverage successful assets across platforms.
  • Content does not have to be gamified to be playful. Unstructured play, as with the Holocube, can also promote highly engaging social interactions.

Read more about this series of prototypes here or learn more about the other prototypes below:

  1. AR SHARK (learn more)
  2. CT SCANS WITH HOLOCUBE (learn more)
  3. VR WEEVIL (learn more)
  4. AR CONSTELLATIONS (learn more)
  5. ESCAPE THE PLANET (learn more)
  6. AR SCALES OF THE UNIVERSE (learn more)
  7. MEAD FESTIVAL 360 VIDEOS (learn more)
  8. PALEONTOLOGY 360 VIDEO (learn more)
  9. CT MUMMIES (learn more)
  10. TREE OF LIFE (learn more)

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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