PHOTO: A team of volunteers have to dig through layers of sandstone to find fossils. (ABC News: Cameron Best)
Using technology of the future to dig up the history of the past, students are taking part in a paleontological dig that will use 3D and virtual reality to create a dinosaur you can touch.
Scientists and volunteer dinosaur enthusiasts have been chiselling, digging and drilling siltstone looking for fossils in what used to be a Gondwanan riverbed.
They have found more than 200 bits of dinosaur and mammal bone in just 12 days.
A team of students from Deakin University is working at the other end of the timeline — using technology to capture the paleontological dig, known as Eric the Red West.
Mechatronics engineering student Matthew Bykersma, working on a rugged beach near Cape Otway on the Great Ocean Road, said he never expected to be taking part in a dinosaur dig.
"It's been really interesting and really different to what I've done," he says.
"So much of our engineering is done in labs and on computers. With mechatronics I thought I'd be building robots and perhaps animatronic dinosaurs, but I doubted I'd be on site helping to dig up and capturing that process."
When it is done, their work will be displayed at Geelong's National Wool Museum in what they believe will be a world first.
PHOTO: Fossils are being found by volunteers like Dean Wright. (ABC News: Cameron Best)
The project's founders are Deakin's Virtual Reality Lab head Ben Hornan and industrial design lecturer Kaja Antlej.
"We're looking at how we can use virtual reality and 3D printing to help with providing educational experiences in a museum context," Dr Horan said.
"Dinosaurs are something that excites most people, including myself. So we thought 3D printing, dinosaurs and virtual reality would be a great combination."
Wallaby-like dinosaur lived in Victoria 100 million years ago
PHOTO: Project founder Doctor Kaja Antlej holds up a fossilised dinosaur tooth found at the dig site. (Supplied: Cameron Best)
The centrepiece of the exhibition experience will be a 3D-printed dinosaur, based on one of the most complete skeletons ever found in Australia.
"In the museum with the virtual reality headset, which will provide you with audio and video, you can see inside, look around and see the dinosaur dig and then reach down and touch the tactile 3D-printed dinosaur," Dr Hornan said.
PHOTO: Digging for fossils is hard work. (ABC News: Claire Slattery)
"So we are doing experiments on how we can best print dinosaur-like skin so people will not just feel the geometry, the size and the scale but also the contour of the skin as well."
The dinosaur is a small wallaby-like ornithopod called the Leaellynasaura, which lived in Victoria 100 million years ago.
Palaeontologists believe the Leaellynasaura had scaly skin like an eastern blue tongue lizard.
"We have scanned an eastern blue tongue lizard and we're 3D printing the scales as best we can. Then we'll take that to the experts and handlers of blue tongue lizards and ask them which best represents the lizard and then we'll just place that skin onto the dinosaur," Dr Hornan said.
The Leaellynasaura was named after the daughter of palaeontologists Patricia Vickers-Rich and Tom Rich, who discovered the first partial skeleton in the 1980s.
"We know the Leaellynasaura was a rapid running plant-eater," Professor Vickers-Rich said.
"She could run very quickly. We've got juvenile specimens of her that are about half-a-metre high, the adults would have been a metre high. The other thing we know is that she had really big eyes."
Don't feel scared, but be careful in VR
It is also likely the Leaellynasaura was shy, so in virtual reality it might need to be approached with care.
"It'll probably be a little concerned about people coming into its forest and filming it. So you don't have to feel scared, you might have to be a little bit careful yourself not to scare the dinosaur because it'll be on the lookout for anything that's going to harm it," Dr Hornan said.
"Eventually if you get to know it maybe it could be a friend you could take out on a lead for a walk."
As for the environment, the team will use parts of the Geelong Botanical Gardens to represent the Leaellynasaura's habitat, which was probably something like remnants of rainforest left in Australia today.
PHOTO: The Leaellynasaura was likely shy, so those approaching it in VR will have to do so carefully. (Supplied: Deakin University)
Dr Horan said it was all about using the technology available to engage people in new ways.
"Virtual reality is part of what we do nowadays. And the basic value proposition of virtual reality is creating environments and contexts that either don't exist or are difficult to access," he said.
"So in the case of dinosaurs, they don't exist anymore — their fossils do, but they don't. And in the case of the dig, this environment is difficult to access so we can take this excavation here and take it to people who may not otherwise get the experience."
Showing off Australia's palaeontological past
Professor Vickers-Rich, who has uncovered several dinosaur species in Australia over a career spanning decades, says it is an exciting new way to communicate her work.
"I think what we're trying to do is wake up the Australian public to the fact that we have some really cool unique material here," she said.
"Most people, when you talk to them on the street, you say 'What dinosaurs do you know?' And the dinosaurs they know are things from Mongolia, or South America or North America, and here in their own backyard they have the most wonderful little dinosaurs and some big ones.
"So I think that's what's driving me and everyone working on it, we want Australians to know they have some really, really cool stuff."