Bytes and Bones Bring Digital Dinos to Life

Article excerpt

Byline: Tim Christie The Register-Guard

If you liked "Jurassic Park," you'll love Dinomorph.

If you can imagine tickling an apatosaurus, or getting a diplodocus to play with a beach ball, or maybe taking a ride on a Tyrannosaurus rex - of raising your very own virtual dinosaur - then you have some idea of what the brains behind a Eugene company are working on.

Dinomorph is dinosaur modeling software developed at the University of Oregon that's now licensed to a Eugene startup company called Kaibridge Inc. The company is developing the technology in ways that interest both paleontologists and video game enthusiasts, and is garnering national attention.

The company's work on the biomechanics of dinosaurs is mentioned in this week's Newsweek cover story on the new science of dinosaurs, and is featured prominently in a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Dinomorph originated in a computer science class taught by UO professor Kent Stevens, who wanted to show his students how to design software from scratch. Stevens had just seen "Jurassic Park," so he devised a simple depiction of a dinosaur with cylinders for body parts.

When he showed the design to paleontologists, they told him that with some work, that kind of computer program could be useful to their science.

What makes the Dinomorph models so lifelike, and therefore of interest to scientists, is that the dinosaurs' movements are based on their actual bone structure, which is based on scanned images of actual dinosaur bones.

"We're going back to the basics of osteology," or how bones and joints work, Stevens said.

For example, Stevens used the software to test a theory of how a tyrannosaurus rex - a five-ton creature with a long tail and two legs - sat down and stood up without tipping over. His research also suggests that long-necked dinosaurs such as apatosauruses, long suspected and often depicted as tree-top nibblers, more likely dined on low-lying brush or even aquatic plants based on the structure of their vertebrae.

The software allows researchers to "throw away a whole lot of subjectivity," and develop testable hypotheses, Stevens said.

"The future of paleontology is to create moving, living forms," he said.

Kaibridge incorporated in January 2004 to exploit the Dinomorph technology and now has just three principals: Stevens, the chief technology officer, Dan Mayhew, the president, and Eric Wills, the principal engineer and a Ph.D. candidate who's been working with Stevens for six years.

The company's software is helping to drive a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The exhibit, titled "Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils: New Discoveries," explores how current thinking about dinosaur biology has changed dramatically over the last two decades. …