James May’s Science Stories app — is this the future for museum guides?

James May getting the DigiCave treatment

James May from Top Gear is, I think we can all agree, a Top Chap.

I very much enjoy his sensible analysis and infectious enthusiasm on Top Gear — but he’s also done a lot of other shows on a multitude of subjects (e.g. James May On The Moon, James May On The Edge of Space). He’s a useful guide to anything to do with technology.

Which is why The Science Museum has launched an app based around James. It’s one of the most advanced applications of augmented reality I’ve seen: The underlying technology (Qualcomm’s Vuforia) has been combined with some astonishing visual effects to make James appear out of thin air at each featured exhibit.

The concept is this: Go to the Science Museum in London. Download the app (£1.99) from either the iTunes or Google Play store. Walk up to one of the 9 featured exhibits. Point your phone at the plinth whilst running the app and — boom — up pops a fantastically accurate nigh-on photo-realistic version of James May who proceeds to give you a witty, knowledgeable overview of the exhibit. (You can also use the app at home too!)

I had ‘hands on’ with this the app at the Science Museum a few weeks ago and I have to say I found it absolutely fascinating.

The team behind the app, DigiCave, have used some photo-realistic whizzbang goodness to make it look like James is standing right in front of you chatting away. It really does look like a video of him. It’s only if you look incredibly close you’ll see it’s actually a 3D-composite whose lips and mannerisms move along with the audio. This means that in terms of scale, the only thing the team would need to do to ‘turn on’ more exhibits is to record the audio from James. That’s a heck of a lot easier than creating a full HD video for each exhibit.

The key point is engagement: I was thoroughly engaged. Indeed, on witnessing this service, I was immediately moved to declare the old bog standard audio guides so popular today as last century. Who wants to listen to some dry nobody when you can have James May tell you all about it?

I’d like to see the Science Museum offer a fully augmented James May guide. I think we’d see a lot more engagement from both adults and children with this kind of approach — and hopefully, in a few months, we’ll get an update from DigiCave, publishers ICN and The Science Museum on how things are going.

Now then, how did DigiCave create such a lifelike James May avatar? Simple. They hooked up 36x 12-megapixel SLRs in a 360-circle and took photos of James continually. Very cool. Simply brilliant — I’ve no doubt the DigiCave folk will be getting a lot of phone calls from other parties interested in using their technology to do similar things.

Pick up the app from iTunes or Google Play.

Find out more from The Science Museum’s product page.

You can see what it looks like from these screenshots and photos I took:

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