CMNH Insect Collection [VR]

Leveraging the affordances of VR to create new interaction paradigms for scientific databases



To expand public access to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's invertebrate zoology collection by combining the richness and diversity of the physical specimens with 21st century technology to create novel researching, learning, and exploring paradigms.

  • Team: Gray Crawford

  • Role: Designer

  • Tools: Gravity Sketch on HTC Vive

  • Context: Invertebrate zoology is the study of “the greatest radiation of life on Earth.” Documenting and understanding the taxonomic relationships of these animals is a colossal task. Thus, there is need for vast collections and correspondingly powerful learning tools to help us comprehend this branch of life. The museum's collection has over 13 million specimens, an extraordinary but difficult to access resource.

Head curator Dr. John Rawlins at work

Head curator Dr. John Rawlins at work



01 // The Lab

Our solution is a virtual space with three main components. First is the lab, a robust visualization space which allows CMNH researchers to view and explore their insect collection with multiple representations, moving beyond what is currently possible with light observation of physical specimens. 

The lab that you see is a propositional sketch that shows some of the ways that spatial computing can support taxonomic research. This portion of the interface is specifically tuned to support scientists, although it is available to all users. The affordances of VR will allow scientists to compare, analyze, survey, organize and think in new ways. 

There are many ways of organizing and categorizing the world of insects: phylogenetics and morphology are the most common, therefore the interface favors those paradigms. However, analysis based on geography, locomotion, behavior, chemistry and infrared/ultraviolet light are possible as well.

Taxonomic relationship visualization

Taxonomic relationship visualization

Morphologic detail

Morphologic detail



02 // The Biome

This engaging three dimensional environment provides an on boarding experience for first time users. It is an explorable representation of Earth’s major biomes in which the public can find distinctive insects. The user can select from forest, desert, grassland, mountain, rainforest, and aquatic.

In each location, the system prompts the user through their naturalist’s notebook to seek out insects living in their home environment. As iconic species are found they can be collected in the Naturalist’s Notebook and placed in the lab for further learning.

The biome provides a fun, visually rich experience for onlookers who can track the explorer’s progress on large monitors in the exhibition space. This encourages an atmosphere of communal exploration and play as users learn about insects and taxonomy. 

This portion of the interface is tuned to the needs of younger users who are learning the fundamentals of science. It can be used as an instructional tool by teachers and more experienced users as well. 



03 // Naturalists Notebook

The notebook serves as a record keeper and communication device. It is always attached to the user’s body, available in any scene.

Users can pin any insect from their explorations through the collection into their notebook, along with associated information like geographic distribution or physical characteristics, building up a record of their interests and findings, by curating their own personal subcollection.

For museum scientists, their virtual notebook can be output as a web document which the museum community can follow as a public-facing communication tool, facilitating greater engagement.

From the notebook, users can dive back to the lab to explore an insect more deeply. 

Leap Motion  integrated gesture control

Leap Motion integrated gesture control


Subject Matter Expert Interviews

01 // Dr. John Rawlins

Dr. John Rawlins is the curator and head of the Invertebrate Zoology Section at the CMNH. He helped us to understand the needs of those who are producing taxonomic knowledge. We talked to him about the state of massive museum collections and current attempts to digitize them. He noted that this is an ongoing challenge for museums across the country and any progress made would be invaluable to many organizations. He was excited for the possibilities of VR and gave our team thoughtful, inspiring guidance.


  • Organization, surveyability and comparison are critical

  • Support analysis that goes beyond morphology and taxonomy

  • Allow flexibility in tagging and organizing systems

  • Collection digitization is a massive hurdle

  • The system should support identification


02 // Professor Marti Louw

Marti Louw, director of the Learning Media Design Center at Carnegie Mellon University Human Computer Interaction Institute, spoke with the team about the potential for our interface to be a learning tool. She helped us to see how the interface could be made more useful to specific knowledge seekers such as users who need an unknown insect specimen identified.


  • Support observation and practices of seeing

  • Scaffold environmental volunteers to success at identifying benthic macro invertebrates to family and genus level

  • Provoke scientific curiosity and exploration

Dr Rawlins.jpg

03 // Vincent Villela

Vince Villela, a graduate researcher at University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Education, spoke with us about making our tool engaging to the public and relevant to primary school learning objectives. He noted that an explorative game allows for learning objectives to be measurable and testable, crucial aspects of any learning experience. Our biome environment, came directly out of our conversations with Vince. He helped us to see how our tool could be useful to young learners and explorers.



Video Demos

The Lab scientific research context

Biome public facing learning context

Naturalists Notebook communication and recording device