Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Fly Like A Pterosaur: An Interactive Prehistoric Flight Sim

Robert Rath | 25 Sep 2014 12:00
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Communicating this through play is an incredible coup, but it also required extensive research. After all, "Fly Like a Pterosaur" isn't built for entertainment, it's an educational tool based on hard science - meaning Alonso and her team had to program flight characteristics for an animal that hadn't flown in 66 million years. The effort was daunting, but the AMNH has a deep talent pool to draw on: Dr. Mark Norell, the head of the museum's Division of Paleontology handled the anatomical details based on fossil specimens. Dr. Michael Habib, a pterosaur expert at USC, then charted aerodynamic calculations based on Dr. Norell's models. Finally, the team incorporated information from comparative biology - where scientists apply knowledge of current species to judge how extinct specimens might have behaved.

"All of this information, helped shape the models of the pterosaurs," Alonso said. "And to those we applied the aerodynamic calculations that helped them fly."

The end product is a solid experience that kids line up to play. While the gameplay is limited, soaring above the ocean is a satisfying Zen-like experience. Swooping down on fish never fails to feel thrilling. It's odd, and a little sad, that this limited Pteranodon sim is by far the most fun I've ever had with a Kinect. Academics, hobbyists and researchers seem to find creative uses for the system on a weekly basis, while mainstream game developers let it gather dust. Perhaps the Kinect will find its full potential in places like the AMNH, that are more willing to explore uses outside the triple-A space.

Museums have been increasingly using games as like this an audience engagement tool, a way to leverage technology to their advantage. The AMNH, for example, has an entire in-house department for crafting interactive experiences. "Games are part of that effort," says Alonso, but the museum also uses "mobile apps, physical computing, augmented reality, gesture recognition, multitouch environments and more."

These technologies can support a surprising range of topics. During her career, Alonso's exhibits have included a display where visitors help pump a Sauropod's heart and a video table that let them experiment with terraforming Mars. iPad apps have become exhibition staples -- Pterosaurs has one -- and one of the museum's iPad games nagged a Webby nomination this year. There's also a Pterosaurs augmented reality card game that guest can buy at the museum's gift shop, or downloaded for free. These resources let visitors take the museum experience home with them, reinforcing lessons they may have missed.

But if you want to try Fly Like a Pterosaur you'll have to visit the museum itself - at least for now. When asked whether the museum would be interested in releasing their exhibit games via Xbox Live or another platform in the future, Alonso's response was enthusiastic: "We'd love to do that!"

So if things work out, we can all be soaring soon. Until then, you'll have to get in line with the kids.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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