Research
Virtual and Augmented Reality instructor Allyson Cikor uses a virtual reality system to explore a dinosaur track site in the MD of Greenview.

The Grande Cache Dinosaur Track site, located on the edge of the Rocky Mountains northwest of Edmonton, is the only large-scale exposure of dinosaur tracks known in Canada. An estimated 10,000 individual prints belonging to several different species of the extinct lizards who called the region home during the Cretaceous Period have been found at about 25 different sites in the area.

Now, thanks to researchers from Lethbridge College’s Spatial Technologies Applied Research and Training (START) initiative, visitors to the Grande Cache Tourism and Interpretive Centre in the Municipal District of Greenview can follow in these dinosaurs’ footsteps.

The tracks, which were preserved under layers of rock, remained undiscovered for more than 90 million years until open-pit mining operations in the area stripped away rock layers to reveal them in the 1980s. Due to geological upheavals over the past several millennia, the tracks are located on steeply angled cliff faces that are almost totally inaccessible to the public.

A screen capture of the virtual reality dino tracks program.

“Grande Cache has this site with amazing tourism opportunities, but they can’t bring people to it because of logistical and safety concerns,” explains Mike McCready, the college’s President’s Applied Research Chair in Virtual and Augmented Reality.

Instead of bringing people to the tracks, McCready and his team, which includes college Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) instructor and researcher Allyson Cikor and VR/AR program graduate Benjamin Blackwell, are bringing the tracks to the people. By using photogrammetry to capture close-up and detailed imagery of the dinosaur tracks, the team has created an immersive VR experience combining 360-degree imagery, spatialized audio and guided narration that enables visitors to experience the tracks and hone their paleontology skills with virtual activities – all without leaving the Grande Cache Tourism and Interpretive Centre.

Development assistant Jesze Kaszas stands beside the remote dino tracks site in the MD of Greenview.

The next step for the interactive exhibit will be creating an augmented reality piece developed by VR/AR student Alex Mayer. The AR part of the project enables visitors to see how the tracks were made by overlaying digital content over the real-world site using Snapchat filters.

“The Walking with Dinosaurs VR/AR project is a very exciting opportunity to share this historical site with the public in a fun immersive learning experience,” says Jenny Daubert, Tourism Supervisor for the MD of Greenview. “The team from Lethbridge College is extremely talented, and they have exceeded my expectations in their ability to recreate the dinosaur track site.”

The Walking with Dinosaurs VR/AR project is funded in part through a $18,000 grant from the provincial government’s Community and Regional Economic Support program. In June, McCready and Cikor presented the project to the VR/AR Global Summit 2021 – North America, garnering international attention for their work.

An illustration of a Sauropelta, a dinosaur that roamed Alberta and left footprints that are now being brought back to life through virtual reality.

“We had a number of people reach out to us after our presentation to ask us about using technology to digitally recreate other heritage sites,” says Cikor.

The Spatial Technologies Applied Research and Training (START) initiative was created to partner with Alberta-based organizations to apply VR/AR technologies to solve challenges in key Alberta sectors, including agriculture, energy, architecture, health care, cultural heritage and emergency response. In July, the START team received $410,921, part of $1.3 million in grants Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) awarded to Lethbridge College, to continue to bridge the gap between industries and community organizations that could benefit from virtual or augmented reality technology and the expertise to support them.

To get more information about the Grande Cache Dinosaur Track site, go to experiencedinosaurtrails.com. To learn more about START, go to lethbridgecollege.ca/start; email spatial@lethbridgecollege.ca; or call 403-320-3468.