Multimedia Transforms High-Tech Museums

June 26, 2010
Surface technologies, multidimensional theaters, and virtual reality gaming are new information elements in learning networks 

Soaring through the sky as a pre-historic dragonfly, engaging in a full-body virtual basketball game, and reporting “live” from the White House – state-of-the-art technology is enabling immersive experiences for museum goers.

Whether it’s integrating gesture-recognition social software, creating 3D/4D experiences, or constantly updating exhibits with real-time information, museums are evolving into new facilities.

“Museums are rapidly transforming from isolated destinations for visitors into centers within interactive and distributed learning networks,” says David Greenbaum, vice president, National Cultural Practice Leader, SmithGroup, Washington, D.C.

Gesture Recognition
Take the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, for example. Tapping into a 3D gestural interface system developed by GestureTek, children use their hands and feet to interact with dynamic video while engaging in fitness-related activities. At the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science & Technology in Syracuse, NY, the GestureXtreme basketball simulation game has gone a step beyond Wii; the system tracks full-body movement without a remote control. Children and adults see themselves in real-time as they play on a digital basketball court and experience how their muscular and skeletal systems work.

“This form of interaction is educational yet highly entertaining,” explains Vincent John Vincent, president, GestureTek, Sunnyvale, CA. “We’ve found that visitors retain what they’ve learned much better and are more inclined to return for a second visit.”

A New Dimension
Another high-tech trend is 3D and 4D theaters that make history come alive, says Greenbaum. At the Newseum in Washington, D.C., a theater combines 3D video, motion-based seats, lighting, air and water spritzers, leg ticklers, and bottom kickers to accent the stories of famous news reporters in history, says Dan Laspa, project manager, Electrosonic, Burbank, CA, whose AV company specified Christie digital cinema projectors and a Stewart curved screen for the 4D experience.

In Denver, The Wildlife Experience interactive museum is set to debut a unique 3D walk-through exhibit created by Digital Revolution Studies and Real D (both known for their work on Avatar).

According to Jessy Clark, the museum’s director of programs, “We have six beautiful 3D monitors and spent many hours walking through the exhibit, selecting locations that wouldn’t be invasive to the experience. The cameras are visible yet tucked away in areas where we felt we could use a ‘wow’ factor.”

Another striking exhibit in the Globeology section of the museum is called Science on a Sphere, designed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In this exhibit, environmental information from constantly updated satellite images – such as weather maps and sea turtle migration – is seamlessly projected onto a 6-foot globe. The combined effect of the four Sony projectors working together is a slowly rotating, 3D global image.

Fully embracing state-of-the-art technology to educate visitors about wildlife, the museum also features animatronics and touchscreen kiosks. “Visitors interact with animatronic ‘people’ and ‘ask’ them questions by using touchscreens,” explains Clark. “The screens are small enough that, if the visitor chooses to read the traditional museum panels instead of the touchscreens, they don’t interfere with the look of exhibit space.”   

Staying on Top of the Curve
Experts emphasize the importance of embracing such state-of-the-art, interactive technology. “Because technology has so changed the way people interact with information, media, and each other, museums fear being left behind if they don’t seek to adapt to current trends,” notes Tom Hennes, an experience designer and principal with Thinc Design, New York City.

“Museums are competing with amusement parks and other attractions, so there’s never any shortage of interest in exciting, interactive technologies that will attract visitors, keep them at the museum longer, inspire them to make a return visit, and encourage them to tell their friends,” says Vincent.  B

Barbara Horwitz-Bennett is a frequent contributor to building and construction publications.

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