CU Denver Team Brings Dinosaurs to Life—In Your Phone
On Location: The CU Denver team that helped create an augmented reality app for Dinosaur Ridge, along with Dinosaur Ridge's Jeff Lamontagne (middle).

CU Denver Team Brings Dinosaurs to Life—In Your Phone

April 18, 2023

Fifteen miles from Auraria Campus and 100 million years ago, dinosaurs that walked across a stretch of what would become Colorado left an incredible physical legacy. Then, armored stegosauruses with spikey tails loomed large and horned triceratops roamed the landscape. In their wake, they left behind remnants of their daily lives and environment in fossils, wave ripples, and, even, hundreds of iguanodon footprints.  

Our story, though, begins in January of 2021 and in a digital age that marks time at a rapid pace. Then, four College of Arts & Media students enrolled in Professor Carrie Osgood’s Design Studio III course had an opportunity to work with a real-world client: Dinosaur Ridge, a museum and educational destination in Morrison. The class is intended to give students real-world experience by pairing them with nonprofits with digital design needs. This team’s task was to develop an Augmented Reality (AR) App to enhance the visitor experience and amplify opportunities for engagement.

The goal was to create something accessible to visitors of all ages, but especially children. By March, students Bryan McDonald, Luis Hernandez, Satu Gillispie, and Heidi Perez were pitching their app to the staff at Dinosaur Ridge. “We brainstormed as to how the AR could work onsite and offsite for park visitors and dinosaur enthusiasts,” said Gillispie, a 2022 graduate who has just started a master’s degree program at Full Sail University for Game Design. “We kept in contact with our connections at Dinosaur Ridge constantly, and even visited the site with a brief tour to get an idea of how the app could work.”  

Dinosaur Ridge’s team loved the students’ pitch so much that they put together funding to hire College of Arts & Media Professor Bryan Leister to complete the project and make it a reality. He came in as the project manager and coder, but part of the agreement was that Leister was able to bring on two student assistants to complete the aesthetic parts of the project through digital design.  

Left to Right: Satu Gillispie, April Kinney, Christina Weed, Professor Bryan Leister, and Dinosaur Ridge’s Jeff Lamontagne.

He hired Christina Weed and April Kinney, both 3D Graphics & Animation students in CU Denver’s Digital Animation Center (DAC) who wanted to enhance their skillsets during their collegiate careers. “Our students are much better designers than I am,” Leister said. “I wanted to make sure I hired people that were huge fans of gaming. As it turns out, both Christina and April were [also] dinosaur enthusiasts.” 

Kinney and Weed were excited about a hands-on learning opportunity that directly correlated with their future career field. “It was also an opportunity to go in a different direction than maybe what most people are planning on in [the 3D Graphics & Animation] program,” Kinney said. “A lot of people are thinking about things like games or movies. There’s not as much emphasis, as far as I’ve seen, placed on educational AR stuff, museum-type stuff.” 

Instead, Kinney and Weed were creating, sculpting, and animating dinosaurs in an app program to show what a hiker at Dinosaur Ridge might have seen if they were able to look at that segment of the Dakota Hogback all that time ago. When using the app built by the CU Denver team, visitors would be able to use a trail marker system to bring up an animation of the dinosaur that—100 million years ago—would have been standing in that spot.  

And, in a modern twist, they could take a photograph of the dino animation in that spot to create a virtual postcard that brings together the past and the present. And, if you’re not at Dinosaur Ridge, the designers also created a home version, so you can bring the students’ 3D sculptures into your living room, kitchen table, or downtown Denver.  

A photo rendering using one of the 3D dinosaur sculptures from the Dinosaur Ridge app.

For the students, who worked on the project through the summer and into the fall 2022 semester, this was their first time working directly for a client. That came with its own set of challenges, but also an opportunity to make their own marks—their own version of fossilized footprints—on a project that could have impacts far into the future.  

Weed even pitched her own addition to the app, a virtual guide named Dr. Ichno. “I came up with the idea of giving a face to the app,” said Weed. “I ended up pitching her to the actual scientists at Dinosaur Ridge. I was really nervous about it, because I thought I was going to have to fight for it and explain why this is a good thing for us to spend our time on. But a soon as I pulled out the concept sketch, they were all just like, ‘Yes, perfect.’ That was exciting,” 

Leister said that this kind of contract work is a great way to bring prototypes out of the classroom and into reality while providing students with real-world experience. In a full circle twist, a familiar face to the project got to help finish what she’d started. After graduation, Gillispie’s first job as an artist was being hired onto Leister’s team. “I completed helpful ui/UX research and design for the new menus, the buttons, the photo frames, as well as coded the blue sprite explosion that pops up when the user chooses a dinosaur to augment,” Gillispie said. 

The app launched during the fall semester and is now available in the Apple and Google Play Stores, and Dinosaur Ridge plans to begin using it on tours in the near future. This sort of community partnership has become a cornerstone of CAM projects, and we’re likely to see more collaborations in the future. “You want to do something to help somebody who’s out there doing something good in the world,” said Leister. “What is really making it work, honestly, is to have somebody like [Professor] Michelle Carpenter who’s proactive in finding these people.” Those efforts help create collaboration points between CU Denver and the community, while giving students unique educational experiences. 

Like the dinosaurs of old, CU Denver students will graduate and move onto their next big adventure. Luckily, though, the marks they make on the campus and broader community have impacts that reach far into the future.