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Museum Brings Fossils to Life – WSJ March 2014

Museum Brings Fossils to Life – WSJ March 2014

Interactive Features at the American Museum of Natural History

By SOPHIA HOLLANDER for the Wall Street Journal

The prehistoric flying reptile swooped over a shimmering ocean. But in a flash, it quickly plummeted into the waves. A curse rang out.

The interactives group at the American Museum of Natural History was testing one of the more ambitious features from its newest exhibit “Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs,” which opens April 5. In it, a flight simulator will allow visitors to soar through two carefully constructed prehistoric landscapes—using their bodies like a “game controller” to direct the flight of the reptile.

In another exhibit at the museum, “The Power of Poison,” on view through Aug. 10, visitors can flip through a giant “enchanted” book that feels like it was borrowed from the library of Hogwarts, the wizards’ school of Harry Potter fame. Another part of the same exhibit animates figures across the side of two Greek-style vases and a plate to tell a story about how poison was used in ancient cultures.

Natural-history museums are better known for their looming taxidermied mammals, glittering minerals and towering dinosaur fossils. But now museums across the country are grappling with ways to engage a generation weaned on sophisticated game and media technologies—without alienating their core audiences or distracting visitors from the actual objects.

A lone interactive screen no longer cuts it, exhibition designers said. Despite limited budgets that can’t compete with those of game designers, some are shifting their resources to newer, more “invisible” technologies—like motion sensors and 3-D modeling—that help make exhibits more animated and immersive.

For example, as readers turn the pages of the roughly three-by-four-foot enchanted book, designed to simulate an 18th-century botanical tome, the blank “parchment” becomes animated with words and images exploring the folklore and mythology of poisonous plants like belladonna and monkshood. Modeled, in part, on Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, the book uses a combination of electromagnetic sensors and projection mapping.

“It has taken me years to make that book,” said Ms. Alonso, who became the museum’s director of exhibition interactives and media nearly six years ago. She quickly reorganized the group to reflect the museum’s new approach to exhibitions, she said.

“We used to tell stories through objects and now we tell stories based on concepts through experiences,” she said.

Part of that is simply practical, she and other museum designers said. In the past, exhibits focused on tangible artifacts like fossils, the invention of the steam engine, the evolution of animals. Now scientists focus on areas like genomics and nanotechnology.

“When you’re talking about genetics where is the object?” she said. “That forces you to be inventive.”

The Ngo family tries out a hands-on exhibit. Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal

But there are risks to embracing technology, some cautioned. Critics charge that it can become too much like entertainment, diminishing the museum’s educational mission.

“The cooler you make it, the less people are maybe prone to learn,” said Jaap Hoogstraten, director of exhibitions at Chicago’s Field Museum.

At the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Elizabeth Musteen, chief of exhibit production, estimated that technology usually comprises 20 to 30% of the museum’s exhibition-design budgets—and it poses constant questions.

“We grapple with the appropriateness of it, the cost of it, the maintenance of it, the flashiness of it,” said Ms. Musteen. ‘And every exhibit has a different answer.”

In a year-long study conducted in 2013 by Chicago’s Field Museum, 66% of respondents said they wanted the museum to include more technology in its exhibits, but nearly half also said they came to the museum as a respite from technology.

“Visitors are very conflicted,” said Mr. Hoogstraten, the Field Museum’s director of exhibitions.

The key, he said, is to create experiences that would be impossible at home. Last year, the Field developed a 46-inch interactive table that allows visitors to peel back layers of a mummy, while their explorations are projected onto a screen above.

At the Museum of Natural History in New York, recent exhibits have featured a bay projection that visitors can virtually “swim” through, triggering flashes of light (for an exhibit on bioluminescence) and a “brain lounge” featuring the cross-section of famous peoples’ brains as they perform an activity, such as Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello.

But exhibits must usually balance old and new features, said museum designers. On a recent afternoon, builders were still painting and refining models of pterosaurs with 12-foot wingspans that will anchor a massive diorama in that exhibition. They were working in the same sunlit space where scientists did taxidermy a century ago.

And in the poison show, a popular exhibit feature lets visitors use iPads to solve three murder-by-poison mysteries. Ms. Alonso said it was scaled down from her original vision, which included digital victims and a virtual autopsy.

David Harvey, senior vice president for exhibition at the New York museum, said the choices can be difficult. “But we approach this with an appetite for challenge and an acceptance of potential failure, like all good science experiments.”

Write to Sophia Hollander at sophia.hollander@wsj.com

Read the full article at the Wall Street Journal Online

At Play in Skies of Cretaceous Era – NYT 2014

At Play in Skies of Cretaceous Era – NYT 2014

MARCH 19, 2014

When viewed from Central Park West, where it straddles four blocks like a castle, the American Museum of Natural History can seem like a fusty place — “the neo-Classical idea of the museum,” as David Harvey, its senior vice president for exhibition, put it. In the popular imagination, or perhaps just Ben Stiller’s imagination, it’s a retro-cool place filled with dioramas that are put together by curators who are part-time taxidermists.

Yet the sometimes old-fashioned institution is also an eager participant in a 21st-century movement to use games and interactive digital experiences to help museumgoers learn.

Inside the museum, exhibition designers build video games, smartphone apps and other digital interactives for museum visitors using tools like the Kinect, Microsoft’s gesture-based controller for the Xbox 360. The museum hosts educational programs that use the hugely popular video game Minecraft to teach science to high school students. And over the last six months, another group of students has been creating a card game about pterosaurs using artwork and research that comes directly from a Museum of Natural History exhibit that is scheduled to open in April.

Ideas from the games-and-learning movement have been put into effect in classrooms like those in New York City’s Quest to Learn, a public school that uses techniques drawn from games to instruct middle school and high school students. Now those same ideas are being applied to the learning that happens inside museums and other public spaces.

“You probably could not find a museum that is not trying to put interactivity and games into it,” said James Paul Gee, a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University who has championed the use of games as teachers with books like “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.”

“I don’t want to use the phrase ‘arms race,’ but really we are all trying to crack the code of what is next” in terms of digital interactivity, said Meg Robinson, the marketing director at Chicago’s Field Museum.

Not everything that looks like a digital game to an avid video-game player or average teenager is a multiplayer competition. At the American Museum of Natural History, the designers for the April exhibition are putting the finishing touches on “Fly Like a Pterosaur,” an interactive installation that will ask visitors to stand in front of a 10-foot-by-6-foot screen — and beneath the 30-foot wingspan of a quetzalcoatlus, the largest flying animal in earth’s history — and flap their arms to make a digital pterosaur fly and glide through a virtual environment.

The plants and landscapes in “Fly Like a Pterosaur” are accurate, based on fossil records (although the precise colors are only theories). Everything in the exhibition is approved by Mark Norell, the museum’s head of paleontology.

In late February, the museum’s designers were working to add fish to the environment so that visitors could direct the pterosaur to dive into the virtual water to eat. There won’t be a way to fail or lose, however.

“We are not going to force you to fish,” said Hélène Alonso, who leads the small team that makes these interactives inside the 55-person exhibitions department. “It’s not ‘If you don’t fish, you die.’ ”

Another question is whether the virtual world the museum is creating for “Fly Like a Pterosaur” will have edges — will players be able to bump into an invisible wall that inhibits that progress, as they do in many video games.

“We have been talking a lot about that,” Ms. Alonso said, adding that two options were to have the pterosaur fly over endless water or to create a world that’s a small sphere so that players end up returning to where they began.

Ms. Alonso said she would like to build interactive experiences that use new virtual-reality devices like the yet-unreleased Oculus Rift to immerse visitors even further into realistic, if imaginary, spaces.

“But it’s very challenging to combine audiences,” she said. Teenagers might be adept with using their thumbs to control a gamepad, while other visitors might have no experience with it whatsoever.

According to research done by the Field Museum, the average visitor to even a large exhibition that takes up 7,500 square feet will spend only 20 or 30 minutes looking at all the content, said Matt Matcuk, the Field Museum’s director of exhibition development.

“They don’t have a lot of time to invest in learning how to play a game,” he said. “There are supercool lemur skeletons five minutes away. The game needs to be immediately, intuitively graspable.”

That’s why Ms. Alonso says gesture-based controls are so important. “Fly Like a Pterosaur” uses a Kinect that is attached to a personal computer. Another interactive experience being designed for the pterosaur exhibition uses the Leap Motion controller, which interprets hand and finger movement. (The Kinect, in comparison, tracks a person’s entire body.)

Visitors will be able to hold their hands over the Leap Motion controller and then control the motion of a pterosaur in a virtual wind tunnel. Raising and lowering your hand makes the dinosaur’s wings flap; tilting your hand makes it glide. While the digital pterosaur moves, the screen will display information about the principles of aerodynamics that enabled the creature to fly.

Touch and motion interfaces are an important component of “The Power of Poison,” a special exhibition at the museum until August. In one area of the exhibition, visitors can swipe their fingers on one of 12 iPads to help determine what naturally occurring substance poisoned an owl, a dog or Captain Cook and his crew. (Again, there is no failure state — the family pet doesn’t die if you choose the wrong poison.)

In another area, a fictional poisoners’ handbook — an enormous physical object, like something out of Harry Potter — has writing and images that move and change, appearing and disappearing, as visitors touch and turn the pages. The conceit is that the book was written by three witches with deep knowledge of natural poisons.

“In a way, it’s a role-playing game,” Ms. Alonso said.

All this work is part of “a strategy to get people to learn science,” she said. But she added that it’s also O.K. for visitors just to have fun playing games.

“Engagement and science are equally important,” Ms. Alonso said. “If you don’t have engagement, you don’t learn any science.”

A fictional poisoners’ handbook, like something out of Harry Potter, has writing and images that move and change. Credit Michael Nagle for The New York Times

A fictional poisoners’ handbook, like something out of Harry Potter, has writing and images that move and change. Credit Michael Nagle for The New York Times

Continue reading in The New York Times online

Creating Apps for In-Gallery Interpretation – The Exhibitionist 2013

Creating Apps for In-Gallery Interpretation – The Exhibitionist 2013

By Helene Alonso and Jeff Hayward

Click here to read the article


This article first appeared in Exhibitionist (Fall 2013) Vol.32.2 and is reproduced with permission.


Iphone Video Rig

Iphone Video Rig

I made this iPhone rig with some metal scraps and HD Webcam to show the small screen’s content onto a big screen. There are programs one can install in the iPhone that allow you show the screen’s content, but it would not include your fingers’ activity in the shot. I needed to show our “Beyond Planet Earth AR” app, pointing at various areas of the interface and showing the difference between the AR icons outside the screen and the 3D activated inside, so I needed a broad view that included not only the screen but elements outside as well.

So I made this custom rig that holds the iPhone and holds a HD-manual-focus webcam (Logitech HD Pro Webcam C910) pointed at the iPhone’s screen. The rig is made out copper stripes shaped to “hug” the iPhone’s body, welded at the cross points to a central axis that extends up to hold the camera. The cable runs along the axis and connects to the computer through a USB extender for more mobility. It works great!