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Projectors Light Up the Carter Library

On the world stage, the United States President projects America's image. So it's fitting that projectors are at the heart of a major renovation of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta.

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Though Design & Production has built custom touch tables before, the table it designed for the Carter Library was unique for its front projection.

CHALLENGE: Create two major projector-driven museum exhibits that stand out but adhere to the wishes of a former U.S. president.

SOLUTION: Scratch-build a projector-driven touch table and finagle six 13-foot-tall screens into a majestic rotunda.

On the world stage, the united states president projects America's image. So it's fitting that projectors are at the heart of a major renovation of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta.

"We wanted to push the envelope and not be the traditional dimly lit museum," says Jay Hakes, the museum's director. "We wanted to be interactive and unique. Some items you couldn't find anywhere else."

When it came time for a $9.1 million renovation, the museum got its wish: an interactive touch table that's driven by six Digital Projection dVision 30-10808P-XL projectors nestled in the ceiling above. Christened for the public late last year, the 18-square-foot, triple-oval installation is possibly the world's first 1080p projector-driven table. And it's just part of the AV overhaul undertaken by Lorton, Va.-based integrator Design and Production (D&P).

"Everybody was wowed by the interactivity and depth of content, but the only question they had was, 'Will it work?'" says Sue Lepp, senior vice president and project manager at D&P. "You don't tell a president it will unless you know you can back it up."

In the end, the former president and first lady personally approved the design, which showcases Carter's humanitarian efforts after leaving office. Carter, former Vice President Walter Mondale, and other dignitaries celebrated the reopening of the museum in October 2009.

The Right Touch

D&P has custom-built plenty of touch tables, including one for the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles that won a 2009 Pro AV Spotlight award for its industry-first features. For the Carter museum, D&P wanted to raise the bar again.

"We never get the luxury of just buying something and installing it," says Dale Panning, systems engineer. "It's got to be bigger, better, and faster than any other museum. Therefore, it's totally custom."

D&P initially considered using rear projection under the table with mirror bounces, a design that worked well for the Grammy Museum. But that approach wouldn't support a table as large as what the Carter Museum wanted. D&P then switched to front projection, with a butt-edged set of six images covering the tabletop and then overflowing onto the floor with teaser text such as "Waging Peace" and "Fighting Disease."

"By default, we had a rectangular image area from the projector and an oval table, so we had this unused image area that was very well used in the end," Panning says. "The depth of focus was such that it could remain in focus both at the table and on the floor."

D&P says the 6,800-lumen dVision projectors were critical for meeting the museum's requirements as well as overcoming the ambient light from a wall of windows 14 feet away–windows that had been covered by heavy drapes until, as part of the remodel, Rosalynn Carter ordered them taken down.

D&P also liked the dVision's two-lamp design, which provides a fail-safe mechanism. "That's critical because museums don't have staff to maintain and operate these sophisticated systems, so that's another challenge in our selection of products," Lepp says.

Feeling the Heat

Although the tabletop is a series of ovals, the touch areas are limited to six large, rectangular IRTouch T-46 infrared frames. D&P's in-house fabrication shop made the surface out of Corian, which varies in height like a relief map. And the museum wanted the table's overhang to extend out far enough that people in wheelchairs could sit straight-on and use the table instead of having to pull up alongside the table. That meant the base had to be relatively small, leaving limited space for six computers and a server underneath.

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Since the rotunda wasn't changing, D&P had to figure out the best way to fit vertical screens and LCDs between the existing columns.

Airflow was key because the hardware generates enough heat to slow down touch responsiveness, cause frame freezes, and even warp the Corian. "I never thought Corian that's 1.5 inches thick would change shape," Panning says. So D&P needed a solution. The design called for a large, doorlike feature at one end of the table to serve as the mount for a 46-inch Sharp LCD that displays a map of the world and the location of each person interacting with the table. D&P enlarged the mount area to help create a chimney effect that would move air through the table.

"It's very intuitive to use," Hakes says. "One of my favorite images is Mrs. Carter playing on the table with her grandson, who's around 11. The Carters have really liked that."

Oval Office in a Round Venue

Although D&P's role included replacing many existing exhibits–which it built for the original museum 23 years earlier–and building 3,500 square feet of new walls, one main feature stayed put: the museum's rotunda. But it had to be updated with six 13-foot Da-Lite screens for showing a new original film, A Day in the Life of the President, narrated by Martin Sheen,

"The former president and former vice president both have told me they think it's the best thing they've ever seen that captures what it's really like to work at the White House," Hakes says. Creating that sense of place wasn't easy because the screens had to fill the spaces between the rotunda's columns, and neither the columns nor the museum's top brass were budging.

"Everyone was unyielding as far as screen size, so we had to make it work with the throw distance we were given," Panning says. Again, D&P used Digital Projection gear: six Titan HD-600 units, with their unique ability to flip into portrait mode.

"I don't think it could have been done without the Titans, which could be turned on their side without going through a mirror," Lepp says. "That was a huge solution for avoiding an eyesore in the ceiling of the exhibit space."

The Titans are fed by Adtec SignEdje HD media players, chosen in part for reliability. "They've never given us firmware upgrade issues," Lepp says. "Their hard drives and power supplies have been reliable."

Positive experience also drove D&P's choice of AMX show controllers for the rotunda and other exhibits.

"We love manufacturers that listen to integrators," says Panning. "AMX came into a couple of projects we were doing at the Smithsonian, saw how we were using their equipment, and later tailor-made some of their software to what we were doing."

D&P used the show controllers partly as a way to accommodate the existing power systems because replacing them to match the new exhibits would have increased the budget by a few hundred thousand dollars.

"We had the key areas automated through show control," Lepp says. "The standalone exhibits basically come on and go off with building power."

Power turned out to be a nagging problem. "You name it we had it: spikes, brownouts, and intermittents, which are by far the worst," Panning says. "You can crash a lot of systems or scramble their logic."

Adding UPS units to gear such as projectors wasn't a viable option because they require space and maintenance, such as replacing the battery every two years. Instead, D&P is adding protection such as power conditioners at the panels that serve the AV and lighting systems.

But nothing has kept the museum from making a splash since its reopening. "We just had a meeting of all the presidential library directors," Hakes says, "and I think they're all eager to go out and see if they can emulate some of these new ideas."

Tim Kridel is a Columbia, Mo.-based freelance writer and analyst who covers telecom and technology.

 


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