Sep 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Dan Daley
Multimedia exhibit teaches children fire safety.
You think it's easy keeping a room full of toddlers and grade-schoolers entertained in a museum for 20 consecutive minutes, while managing to actually teach them something? That's what they do each day at EdVenture, a 57,000-square-foot interactive children's museum. The facility, regarded as one of the largest and most advanced of its kind in the United States, opened last November in Columbia, S.C. The establishment's target audience is the stroller set through primary schoolers, and as such, it was designed and built to offer engaging and educational activities, and to withstand assaults from hundreds of little hands and feet in the process.
“Before we even considered things like technical components and equipment, we were thinking, how do we keep it all screwed down in one piece?” recalls Sue Lepp, senior vice president of the media systems division of Design & Production, in Lorton, Va. The company, in conjunction with several others, was charged with devising and implementing much of the museum's internal workings.
One of the most interesting exhibits at the facility is “Home Safe Home,” a demonstration of fire safety awareness. “Kids get taught fire safety instruction in school, but it tends to be kind of dry, and they don't really take a lot away from the experience,” says Dan Moalli, Design & Production project specialist. “With a very hands-on environment like EdVenture, we had the chance to create something more memorable for them, something that was both fun and educational, which are words kids don't hear in the same sentence too often.”
EdVenture takes a humorous approach with museum exhibits like “Message Repeater,” which pounds out bodily noises on cue, and “Dr. Synapse,” which explains the workings of mind and body, and “Skeleton in the Closet.” In this way, the museum experience acknowledges the fact that kids are, well, juvenile, without being condescending about it.
Similarly, “Home Safe Home” combines several theatrical and technological concepts and approaches, yet never gets wrapped up in its own conceits. The idea of the exhibit, according to Lepp, was to create a fictional family that kids could relate to, which would encounter any number of fire hazards in their home, teaching kids what to do and what not to do in such situations. It's normally the kind of material guaranteed to make naptime a success at any school. But Design & Production's creative team, working with video production and post facility Boston Productions and exhibit fabricators the Art Guild, West Deptford, N.J., found a way to make the presentation compete with interactive video games — the ultimate palliative for short attention spans.
DEEP THOUGHTS, SHALLOW STAGE
In a 30'×18' enclosed space in the museum, designers created a stage that juts out a mere 6in. from two of the walls. On it, instead of actors performing, a video is projected onto screens on the walls. The content of the video, though, is matched to other physical props that make up the set. For instance, a couch seems to sit in the family living room. However, only half the couch is actually there; the other half is computer-generated imagery joined seamlessly to the non-virtual couch via critically aligned projectors. The same goes for other everyday items in the house, such as stoves and tables — reality and virtual reality live side by side in this household, and they never let the seams show.
“The concepts we applied to the idea were those of object theater and forced perspective,” explains Lepp. The former makes specific objects an integral part of a presentation's narrative; the latter creates ways of compelling the viewer's attention toward specific actions or places on the exhibit's canvas. The sum of the two approaches in this case makes the exhibit seem far larger than the space it occupies, and the movement of the characters in the play appears to exceed the boundaries of the screens they're projected upon.
Design & Production artists first painted a backdrop of the set on cloth. That was then digitally photographed and fed into an AutoCAD program. The space could then be mapped out for the virtual equivalent of blocking. Once a script was created, the four characters comprising the exhibit's family, called the Clueless family (whose four members are played by the same actor), could be given stage directions to move about the set. These movements were shot by Bob Noll, creative director at Boston Productions and the director of “Home Safe Home's” video work, on beta SP videotape using Ikegami 55-A cameras.
“Design & Production created a mockup of the set in their warehouse, based on the measurements they took at the site,” Noll explains. “We brought our camera down [to Virginia], and I took the signal directly from the camera to two Christie DS-30 projectors the project would need. We projected an image of the set back onto the set itself. The intent was to position the projectors perfectly, so that there wouldn't be any seams in the split objects. The way we knew when we had hit the right spot was that the weird banding effect that comes when things are not exactly lined up disappeared. It was kind of like a feedback effect — the feedback stopped when the real and the virtual images lined up perfectly.”
In other words, the screens are embedded into the sets' walls, and their edges are “painted” with overscanned video to match and blend into the cartoonish house backdrop.
Once positioning was completed, Noll returned to Boston and, working from a jointly developed script, he shot scenes involving the fictional family. The scenes were shot using bluescreen mattes, allowing the finished video to be projected onto the set at the museum.
The resulting video is remarkable. When the father character enters in the projection, his legs appear to be under the half of the couch that is real, even as he sits down on the virtual one. Moalli says this is because of the use of forced perspective and the vanishing point effect.
“You're toying with depth perception,” he says. “You can make a wall that's 6ft. away seem like 30ft. away by changing the vanishing point. That's the real magic of this installation: that we were able to create a sense of a much larger space inside a much smaller one.”
Perhaps just as remarkable is the fact that the entire project was done, including video production, postproduction, set construction, and equipment purchases, for approximately $225,000. Sue Lepp says that museum installation budgets can often be constrictive, given the nature of their funding, which often comes from not-for-profit sources. “We would have liked to put a fogger into the set, as well,” she says. “But that would have raised budget issues.”
The project's technology choices needed to do the job, stay within the museum's financial limitations, and also meet other considerations, as well.
“One constant challenge in museum installations is the need to make systems as bullet-proof and automatic as possible, because there are always short-staffing problems,” Lepp explains. “You can't expect to rely on a maintenance staff to repair systems, especially systems that are going to be running seven days a week, like this one.”
An AMX Netlinx NI-4000 was programmed to control the entire system, even running an attraction sequence on an Alpha LED message sign before the start of each 20-minute program. The controller is powered on in the morning, after which it runs the entire day on its own.
That one control unit starts a pair of Christie DS-30W projectors that are hung from the ceiling, controls three Pioneer 7400 DVD players and QSC CX-168 6-channel amplifiers that run through Electro-Voice EQ-231 equalizers, and powers six JBL Control 25 speakers distributed throughout the space. Other systems under its control include several Chauvet Firebird fabric flame simulators and custom-made solenoid-based actuators, which rock several of the physical props such as a space heater, which suddenly comes to life during the show, as well as a ceiling-mounted water spritzer and an animated ashtray.
The projector mounts are particularly interesting: They are hidden within an oversized smoke detector prop on the ceiling, which itself has a speaking role in the narrative. Two of the DVD players supply primary images to the projectors. The third is used to feed a standard GE television that sits in the set's kitchen. That TV, in turn, shows an image of a fireman/narrator who appears simultaneously on the TV set and through larger projections. Synchronizing the program material was crucial to the illusion's success.
But Moalli says positioning the projectors was the single most critical part of the installation. The dropped ceiling was removed, in part to increase the sense of space in the room, but also to provide easier access to hard mounting points. Otherwise, a planned air conditioning duct would have interdicted the location of the projectors. Lepp says the general contractor worked for Memphis, Tenn.-based architects the Haizlip Group for exactly that reason. “We worked very closely with them to avoid train wrecks,” she says.
Boston Productions experimented with the feedback video signal of onsite cameras to find exact spots for the projectors that would seamlessly align the virtual and real objects. But Moalli says the overall process was more involved than that one day.
“We had the full-sized mockup in our warehouse, but before that, we created a scaled version of the set made from cardboard and paper, and that was created from the AutoCAD diagram we made from the measurements we took of the actual site,” Moalli says. “And we constantly refined it all with rough cuts of the video.”
That kind of intense work paid off, Noll recalls. “When their technicians dropped the projectors into place on the site, we had to tilt them maybe an inch to get the images to line up perfectly with the set,” he says. “That was thanks to all the preparatory work that was done figuring the angles ahead of time.”
Preparation was important for budgetary reasons, as well. “We had three days to get the installation done,” Moalli says. “So part of making the mockup in the warehouse so exact was to be able to troubleshoot any problems before we got to the site.”
The sound for “Home Safe Home” closely matches the sophistication of the video and the set.
“We decided on 5.1 surround because we wanted to use directionality of sound to help carry the show,” Moalli explains. “There are two characters onscreen at all times, so each one is allocated a separate, discrete channel.” Placement of audio elements in the sound field was closely coordinated during the postproduction phase, again for budgetary reasons. “The budget simply didn't allow for something like a BSS SoundWeb or other controller. It would have been useful for [active] panning of the audio during the show.”
So the alternative was to fix the panning placements in postproduction. “The good thing is that the script was very locked in, and we knew where the characters would be during the show.”
The JBL Control 25 speakers are placed at the top of the set walls and aimed down at the round floor seating area. A single speaker is mounted in the cartoonish smoke detector/projector cover.
As a museum exhibit, “Home Safe Home” is remarkably accessible. The low rise of the shallow stage means that kids can get close to it, and they often do, according to Lepp.
“We wrestled with the issue of whether to put up a barrier between the stage and the audience,” she says, describing the 6in. rise of the stage as a “gentle but not intimidating barrier” to most children. “We even considered super-Velcro. In the end, we decided to leave it touchable, because one thing we've learned doing installations that are aimed at children is that if you mechanically attach certain props to others, you run the risk of destroying the whole if you destroy one part.”
“Home Safe Home” has been such a hit that the National Fire Prevention Association, which had given the show its mark of approval, is considering creating a traveling version of it, according to Moalli.
There is one other net effect of this installation that's worth noting, though it manifests itself subtly and might best be perceived if you are under the age of 12.
“We were able to take the budget issues and really make them work for us,” Moalli says. “The show has a very kitschy air about it. Not cheap, but not glossy and shiny, either. The cartoonishness of the props actually brings the kids in on the joke. It's like the Jungle Adventure ride at Disneyland: when it opened it was state of the art. Now, instead of updating it, it's done as an inside joke with the audience. Well, the same with this show. The kids do get the joke. And they get the message.”
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Dan Daley is a veteran freelance journalist and author, specializing in media and entertainment technology and business sectors. He lives in New York, Miami, and Nashville, Tenn. and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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