Art

Explore the Arctic through the eyes of the narwhal

A new immersive experience invites visitors deep under water to consider the narwhal with HoloLens technology.

Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend invites guests to explore icy Arctic waters from the perspective of a narwhal, one of the ocean’s most fascinating and enigmatic mammals. This new immersive experience, narrated by Meryl Streep, debuted at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

Dr. Martin Nweeia, a dental medicine graduate and current university professor and lecturer, curated the exhibit. Dr. Nweeia is a narwhal enthusiast who first became fascinated by the whale’s iconic tooth. Often mistaken for a tusk or horn, the protruding incisor is actually an important sensory organ.

After studying the mammal for two decades, he wanted to capture the true sensory experience of his beloved whale and “bring the story and science of the narwhal together with the Inuit’s incredible depth of knowledge about the whale.”

A holographic representation of the narwhal from Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend HoloLens experience shows the narwhal's brain and sensor tusk
A holographic globe showing the narwhal's habitat, in arctic waters near Greenland; from Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend HoloLens experience
In-app capture of Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend shows photographs show Inuit elders as well as scientists working with narwhals in the water

A still from the HoloLens experience shows how the narwhal's tooth is actually a sensory organ, connected to its brain.

The narwhal habitat mostly circles the polar ice cap and the icy Arctic waters around Greenland.

Dr. Nweeia found it vital to include the voices and knowledge of the Inuit people when presenting information about the narwhal and its habitat.

Pushing the boundaries of the traditional exhibition format, Dr. Nweeia wanted to engage museum-goers in an immersive way. “For a long time, museums have been stagnant. There is an object and you observe that object. It’s not truly interactive,” he says. He teamed up with Erin Henninger, executive director of Case Western Reserve’s Interactive Commons, a division in charge of developing mixed reality applications that encourage and enhance group learning and research.  

Together, Dr. Nweeia and Henninger studied museum visitor habits and their interactions within exhibits. In a massive museum like the Smithsonian, it can be hard to get people’s attention.  “It’s no longer enough to just put something cool or interesting on a wall,” Dr. Nweeia says. To tell the narwhal’s story in a new way, they knew that the HoloLens would be the perfect vehicle. 

What AR allows you to do is have an immersive experience. When you put on the HoloLens and you’re under the ice, it’s a whole different thing from being in an exhibit hall,” says Dr. Nweeia.

And not only does this mixed reality technology reinvigorate the museum experience, but “it also makes you want to learn more. It makes places like an arctic environment, that most people will never get to experience first-hand, feel more accessible and less abstract,” adds Henninger.  

I can't imagine an area the HoloLens can't transform. It's limitless.

Dr. Martin Nweeia, curator of Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend
A group of people play a game from Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend, where they become narwhals. holographic narwhal heads are superimposed over the participants' heads
Participants in the HoloLens experience play a game where they become narwhals on the hunt for food.

Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend will begin its tour of North America in January 2020. So far, visitors to the installation have been in complete awe. “It’s almost overwhelming for them,” says Henninger. “You’ve taken an interactive experience and gone a step beyond that.”  

Dr. Nweeia agrees that technology is changing the way people experience museums: “HoloLens is tapping into our inner need to be in our environment. We want to be deeply in our world, and this technology merges the experience with our reality.”