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Making of a Denver Museum's New Science Exhibit

In the sci-fi thriller Fantastic Voyage, a medical team is shrunk in size to be injected into a scientist's brain to save his life. It may have been a little like that working on the systems integration for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science's Expedition Health exhibition, which required a lot of technology to be put into some very small spaces.

CHALLENGE: Install AV and IT for a series of museum exhibits where space is at a premium.

SOLUTION: Emphasize simplicity in the chosen technology and centralize certain data and signal distribution functions as necessary.

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The computers that drive the Bio Ride experience at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science had to be located away from the exhibit itself.

Credit: Courtesy Electrosonic

In the sci-fi thriller fantastic voyage, a medical team is shrunk in size to be injected into a scientist's brain to save his life. It may have been a little like that working on the systems integration for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science's Expedition Health exhibition, which required a lot of technology to be put into some very small spaces.

"The real challenge was making all the electronics fit into the very compact spaces made by the [main fabricator, Art Guild]," says Guy Fronte, who acted as co-project manager on the job, along with Gary Barnes for systems integrator Electrosonic. "They'd give us renderings and say, 'Make it fit.'"

Expedition Health is a 10,000-square-foot, permanent health-science exhibit about how the human body constantly changes and adapts in ways that can be seen, measured, and optimized. Packed into the exhibition space are more than 40 stations with which visitors can interact. For instance, at the Bio Ride station, high-end exercise bikes rebuilt by Art Guild allow visitors to keep an animated rider moving on 22-inch OFW2211-DVI LCD monitors from Industrial Image. The electronics that power the station are stuffed into a small access space in front of the bicycles. But there was no place to mount the computers that generate heart rate, video, and other data for the Bio Ride experience. Instead, the required Dell computer systems had to be located about 20 feet away in a central computer room linked by Cat-6 cabling. That seems straightforward enough, but to pull the cable, holes had to be core-drilled through the cement floor of the exhibition's second level and run above the dropped ceiling of the first floor's museum gift shop and restaurant.

To transfer audio, video, and USB information from the Dell computers to the bikes and their displays, a Smart AVI DVX200 encode/decode device was used to convert the DVI signal for the Cat-6 portion of the cable run. Gefen USB-1 extenders were used to do the same for the USB information and Gefen EXT-AUD-1000R extenders were used for the audio.

For the few stations that could accommodate their own processing, Fronte says they used Dell's Optiplex Ultra Small Form Factor and Small Form Factor computers, loading some of them with high-speed video graphics cards. "Normally, we would have used a tower-type computer with a larger footprint," he explains.

The sign-in stations, which greet visitors with Elo 19-inch touchscreens, and the sign-out stations, which print out information on the visitor's experience, were particularly complex, says Lath Carlson, vice president of operations for museums & environments at Art Guild. Visitors to Expedition Health receive a pass card they scan at custom-designed bar code readers in order to follow their progress throughout the stations. Information from the cards, the sign-in touchscreens, and from each individual station is sent to a back-end computer, resulting in a personal profile of a person's visit. At the end, thermal printers integrated with sign-out stations can print results such as EKG readings, images, and other profile data as souvenirs.

"The computer, bar code reader, printer, speakers, and amplifiers, as well as sensors that would send an alert to the staff through the AMX show control system when the paper supply was running low, all had to fit into these small metal enclosures," Carlson says. As intricate as that was, contractors also had to devise a way to access all the technology for service and cleaning. Art Guild fabricated a slide-out metal tray to hold all the equipment for each station, with the cabling bundled in a flexible caterpillar-like tube that extends and contracts as needed. Electrosonic mounted the technology on the trays and routed the cables.

Crossing The Stream

Other exhibits presented their own unique challenges. The museum's Cross the Stream station comprises an 8-foot-long balance beam, set about 2 inches off the floor. Below the beam runs a video loop of a babbling stream projected onto a screen surface that's mounted on the floor. The effect is that of a downed tree traversing water.

To create the effect, two Panasonic PTD-W5100 projectors had to be mounted just so–above and several inches beyond either end of the exhibit. They were then rotated inward so that their video content, delivered on CompactFlash cards and synchronized by Alcorn McBride DVM7400 hard disk players in a master/slave configuration, met seamlessly in the center of the floor screen where the beam bisected imagery. The tricky part, says Fronte, was positioning the projectors so that their images were contiguous, but at the same time did not create shadows of visitors on the floor. "Most of the visitors are going to be little kids, and we set the projectors at an angle that keeps most small arms out of the light cone," he says.

Another unique feature of Cross the Stream is its ability to self-adjust its audio to match the level of ambient noise in its area. A Museum Tools Sound Sensor microphone and Smart Amp power amplifier/processor monitors and adjusts the volume of the creek's babbling as needed to retain a preset level. "The Smart Amp acts as an unseen staff member, automatically adjusting the volume of the player as the surrounding room noise goes up and down," says Fronte. Audio playback is through four JBL Control 25 speakers mounted directly above the exhibit.

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In fact, with so many interactive stations in the exhibit, keeping the audio localized at each one was a challenge. Without the space to install concave sound domes above each station, the team instead resorted to 3-inch Blaupunkt car audio speakers backed by Vertek/XTC 3.5-inch speaker baffling, a waterproof foam baffle that fits behind the loudspeakers in a small custom-built speaker cabinet to keep the sound focused. "They compress easily and form a mounting seal that can reduce panel vibration," Fronte explains. The majority of the audio amplifiers used for the exhibits were the compact Radio Design Labs (RDL) ST-PA6 stereo amplifiers, chosen for their size-to-performance ratio.

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Sign-in stations (above, top) for the Expedition Health exhibit link visitors to special ID cards that track their experiences. When they sign out (bottom), they can receive graphical, souvenir printouts.

Credit: Courtesy Electrosonic

At one station at least, the big sound effects are front-and-center. The Tykes Peak area (a verbal play on nearby Pike's Peak), which was designed for children age 5 and under, features a child's silhouette with a 10-inch Industrial Image OF103-350 LCD monitor in a chest-high window. It displays a graphic of a beating heart using an Alcorn McBride DVM-7400E SD video player to source the imagery. Interacting with a sensor, kids can take a giant stethoscope, place it on their own chests, and hear their heartbeat through the silhouette. A subwoofer is used to play back a looped heartbeat, producing a nice, clear thump-thump.

Overall System Architecture

The museum furnished an AMX NI-3100 processor to control the more than 40 AMX PC1 power controller devices installed by Electrosonic and located throughout the Expedition Health exhibit. The system allows the owner to send network commands to computers and other far-end devices to allow them to power down softly prior to shutting off individual components via the relay-controlled PC1 units. Networkwide commands travel over Cat-6 cabling; relay commands use two-wire copper cable. At the start of day, the AMX processor is programmed to initiate power to the PC1 devices and then send "wake on LAN" commands to the networked devices throughout the exhibit. This helps the museum to maintain an energy-saving environment.

Each station in Expedition Health was its own mini-integration proposition, made unique and challenging because of tight confines. However, upon reflection, Fronte says working with such confined spaces may actually have made the overall project simpler than it would have been otherwise. "We didn't have the room to install things that would have made it more complex," he says. "We had to find ways to accomplish what the exhibit needed with the absolute minimum of stuff. And we did."

Dan Daley is a freelance AV writer based in Nashville, Tenn.



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