Grand Teton experiments with ‘augmented reality’

JACKSON — Moose don’t predictably appear in the height of summer along the most bustling trails in all of Grand Teton National Park.

But that’s just what Rhys Walker came upon Tuesday morning — a bull — amid streams of people as he ambled down the Discovery Trail toward Jenny Lake. The Ann Arbor, Michigan, youngster, vacationing with his family, didn’t see a real live moose. Even so, he was intrigued by a digital hologram of the hulking mammal projected on a tablet.

“I’d rather see one in real life,” Walker said, “but it’s pretty good on the screen.”

“Right now it’s showing it in the tree,” he added, “but I feel like once they work out all the kinks it will be really cool.”

Walker enjoyed the faulty, arboreal “augmented reality” moose courtesy of the “animal cam,” a feature of the all-new Jenny Lake Explorer App. The software, still in the beta phase, is geared toward young people, providing them with a digital, interactive extension of interpretative signage and other features passed annually by the million or so annual visitors who go check out Jenny Lake. Other than seeing the computer-generated critters, the application also helps kids to identify plants and animals, identify the Teton peaks and even gear up and virtually climb the Grand.

The Jenny Lake Explorer App is a feature that Grand Teton’s interpretive media specialist, John Tobiason, likened to the “frosting on the cake” of the $18 million dollar overhaul of trails and infrastructure at Jenny Lake, which wrapped up in 2019. The software, like the larger project, was supported by the Teton Park’s nonprofit and philanthropic partners. In this instance, a $250,000 AT&T grant funneled via the Grand Teton National Park Foundation enabled the app, which will eventually be integrated with a broader downloadable National Park Service application.

Different facets of the app were inspired by ideas brought by Camp Jackson kids during a two-day workshop.

“A kid wanted to see a bear walk across from the place where they’re standing,” Tobiason said. “They wanted to climb the Grand, so we tried to build them that. And they wanted to learn to build their own Tetons.”

Sticky notes and kids playing in the mud were translated into functional technology by a developer the grant commissioned, he said.

During the beta phase, the app’s functionality is sometimes tenuous. It struggles to work on Verizon-serviced smartphones, which don’t yet have reliable connectivity in the park. Grand Teton is in the process of adding nine new cell towers and 63 miles of high-speed fiber-optic cable between Moose and Flagg Ranch.

Out on a walkabout after a ribbon cutting event, public affairs specialist CJ Adams pulled out his cell phone, opened the app and scanned a black bear emblem, pulling up the augmented-reality black bear. Problem was, the bear appeared as the size of a mouse. A cautionary message to stay 100 yards away from bears and wolves had also not yet materialized, though that will be part of the final product.

“It’s still in development,” Tobiason explained. “The cameras on the back all function differently. Usually you do these things in a museum setting with lighting and flat surfacing, and it’s a challenge as soon as you start introducing shadows, rain, lightning.”

A final version of the Jenny Lake Explorer App is expected out in September. While there may still be some quirks to work out, the information presented is dialed and accurate.

A stroll down the trail from the digital bear and moose, an augmented-reality American marten made an appearance. The mustelid was on the hunt, sights set on plump pocket gopher that it quickly caught. That’s a scene that Grand Teton retiree-turned-volunteer Andrew Langford is confident plays out in nature with regularity.

“Did some research, and I found a paper written by one of the Muries of marten scat analysis in Cascade Canyon,” Langford said. “The majority of what they were feeding on were pocket gophers, so this was perfect.”

Perfect the moose up in the tree was not. Nevertheless, Jenna Walker thought it was neat for her son Rhys to see the large ungulate in the middle of the day on a busy trail, even if it was on a screen. It’s sort of like a popular kid’s game, she remarked.

“It’s just like Pokemon Go,” Walker told Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins. “Rhys goes, ‘What’s augmented reality? I said, ‘Pokemon Go.’ ”