Aquariums are a unique chance to get up close and personal with all kinds of marine creatures. But it's a little tougher in an aquarium to know what you're looking at, especially if the creature you're admiring is in a giant tank with all sorts of other amazing animals swimming around.

The result is that many visitors are awed by the cool collection of critters, but they're left asking, "What animal is that?"

The Georgia Aquarium had fielded the question so often that they decided to put the answer in their visitors' hands.

You may not know the animal, but the app does

The Georgia Aquarium's app was already helpful, with maps of the facility, schedules of events and even audio tours, all built into the app. The app also included information about the aquarium's exhibitions and galleries, but there weren't ways to identify the beautiful marine animals.

The aquarium offered paper-based maps and animal guides, and their website offers an animal guide. All these processes, however, involved visitors flipping and scrolling, looking for the animal they wanted to identify and hoping to stumble on the right critter. In short, while it's was one way to get that information, it wasn't the most efficient.

Enter the augmented reality (AR) animal guide, a new part of the app that allows visitors to hold up a smartphone, snap a photo of the animal in question and presto! The animal is identified.

OK, so it's not actually magic. The AR animal guide relies on artificial intelligence and an open-source software library developed by Google called TensorFlow to figure out what kind of animal is in the photo.

TensorFlow is a machine-learning system that can perform a number of different tasks, including image recognition. TensorFlow's image recognition module comes with 300,000 images 90 common objects, including animals. Of course, the aquarium's animals aren't always common, but the module is flexible enough to learn to recognize things not necessarily in its database.

So when visitors pull up the Georgia Aquarium app and open the AR animal guide, they snap a photo of the sea critter they want to identify. The app's image recognition program cycles through the animals it knows and returns the animal's name to the visitor.

You can see the app in action in the video below:

A better way to experience the aquarium

The AR animal guide has been a boon for the aquarium's visitors and the aquarium itself.

Since the AR guide's implementation, visitors' usage of the app has increased by 40 percent over 2016, and the aquarium has seen a 63 percent increase in monthly downloads of the app. So more visitors are downloading and using the app when they visit the aquarium, and it's likely that they're getting more out of the experience because of it.

Visitors aren't the only ones who have taken notice of the app's value to the aquarium experience, however. IDG Communications, the media technology company that publishes, among others, CIO magazine, recognized the Georgia Aquarium's app with its Digital Edge 50 Award.

"This year we have many winners employing AI and machine learning, or a combination of the two, demonstrating how quickly those technologies are taking hold," Anne McCrory, Digital Edge program chair and Group VP, Customer Experience and Operations, IDG Events and CIO Executive Council said in a statement announcing the winners.

And that statement pretty well sums up the AR animal guide. The app's use of TensorFlow to enhance the experience of its visitors puts it on the technological cutting edge of the aquarium-going experience.

What animal is that? Georgia Aquarium app helps find the answer
Georgia Aquarium's award-winning mobile app uses open-source image recognition software to help visitors identify more than 50 sea creatures.