The ancient human skull with its empty eye-sockets stares sightlessly from the screen. The girl at the computer clicks the mouse and drags the 3-D image around, viewing the skull from every angle. She clicks again and a metamorphosis occurs: flesh appears on the bones, hair grows, facial features sharpen and come into focus, until the 20th-century pupil is staring at the unwashed, hairy but recognisably human face of her distant ancestor, last seen on Earth more than a million years ago.
The location is the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, but a few months from now it could be any secondary school in Scotland.
"The Hunterian has built up an outstanding collection of skulls which show how humans and apes evolved from their common ancestors," says Jim Devine, the museum's education officer. "And it is one of the few museums which allow parties of schoolchildren to handle the specimens. They can look at the skulls, do comparative measurements on them, and see for themselves the changes made by evolution."
But some schools are too far from Glasgow to come to the museum, so Devine wondered if the museum could go to them.
Working with computer scientists and imaging experts at the University of Glasgow and elsewhere, and funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, he and his colleagues began to explore the educational possibilities of virtual reality. The outcome is Hominid Evolution, an interactive software package designed to replicate the museum experience.
Detailed images of all the skulls can be viewed from any angle; accurate measurements of their dimensions can be taken using virtual callipers; selected skulls can be morphed to show the faces of long-dead hominids. Explanatory text written by Jim Devine and Irvine Johnston, the head of biology at Dumbarton Academy, describes the mechanism of evolution, and traces the many-branched path to Homo sapiens.
When used with an Internet connection, the software provides links to the Hunterian Museum website, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, and other sites containing news of discoveries and discussions of human evolution and anthropology.
"Studying these skulls and the differences between them allows us to trace the history of our own evolution," says Devine. "We can even reconstruct their owner's way of life. Look at this chap for example," he brings up on screen a slate-coloured skull along the top of which runs a large, bony ridge. "That's where his massive jaw-muscles were anchored. It shows he was a vegetarian with immensely powerful jaws that he used for cracking nuts. This is Australopithecus robustus, who went extinct a million years ago.
"The skulls can even establish how the hominids got around. Take Lucy here," he opens another file and a second skull appears on screen. "She's a 25 year-old female of the species Australopithecus afarensis and she lived in Africa almost four million years ago. You can see she'd a much smaller brain than ours," he rotates the skull to show its underside, "but this hole at the base of her skull, where her spine was connected, shows she walked upright just like us. If she had got around on all fours that hole would be at the back of her skull. Lucy is our oldest known two-legged ancestor."
The Hunterian software - aimed in the first instance at Certificate of Sixth Year Studies and Higher grade biology - will be distributed on CD and sent free to any school in Scotland on request. Field testing of the software begins next month with Johnston's pupils in Dumbarton, and at Castlebay secondary on Barra.
There is also an international dimension to the project. The hominid software will be adapted for the English, American and Canadian schools, and Devine has been invited to present papers on the museum's virtual reality work at conferences in Los Angeles, St Louis, Toronto, Santa Monica and New Orleans.
The next stage for the hominid project, says Devine, is for visiting classes to be able to log on to computer systems in the museum and share the experience of examining and discussing the virtual collections with children and experts at centres of learning worldwide. "We should have the facilities to do that by this time next year," he says. "After that who knows?" For further information about the Hominid Evolution software, to take part in testing or to order a free copy of the CD, schools should contact Jim Devine, Hunterian Museum, Gilbert Scott Building, Glasgow G12 8QQ. Tel: 0141 330 4221. The Hunterian website is at http:www.gla.ac.ukmuseum 23H Scotland Curriculum