Deep blue discovery

Visitors explore new ocean exhibit through extensive AV technology The ocean covers 71 percent of our planet’s surface, yet it is vastly unknown. But a new hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, is designed to help visitors understand and appreciate its importance. The 23,000
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Visitors explore new ocean exhibit through extensive AV technology

The ocean covers 71 percent of our planet’s surface, yet it is vastly unknown. But a new hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, is designed to help visitors understand and appreciate its importance.

The 23,000-square-foot

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Sant Ocean Hall, which officially opened its doors to the public in late September, is the new centerpiece of the most visited natural history museum in the world. In addition to nearly 700 marine specimens and models, the museum relies heavily on high-end technology to bring to life the past, the present, and the future of the ocean for visitors.

In 2003, it was renovation, not technology, upon which museum officials were focused. They were planning an overhaul of the 100-year building when the importance of adding a major exhibit dedicated to the ocean was immediately recognized.

“The ocean is such a large and important part of the earth and our story that to not have a hall devoted to it in a major natural history museum just didn’t make sense,” explained Elizabeth Musteen, Sant Ocean Hall project manager. “Not only do we have over 80 million marine objects in our collections at the Smithsonian, but we are continually working with researchers and scientists around the world, so it was a logical step for us to embark on a major ocean initiative.”

Like the subject matter the hall represents, the initiative that spearheaded its development was expansive. The Ocean Science Initiative, as it was named, is a result of support from Congress. It has also spawned a unique partnership between the museum and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a global leader in oceanic and atmospheric research. The initiative strives to raise awareness and drive home the message that the ocean is a global system essential to all life.

Equally expansive was the renovation of the building, the most ambitious since the museum’s opening in 1910. It included a complete overhaul of the museum’s central hall area, which, for 65 years, had been home to an extensive exhibit featuring the study of human cultures around the world and had featured a mezzanine level since the 1960s.

In order to create the appropriate space for the new hall in this area, the mezzanine level had to be dismantled, escalators had to be relocated, eight second-story overlooks into the hall had to be opened, and a large skylight had to be restored. It took five years, a team of 500 workers, and $49 million to bring the plan through to fruition.

In addition to structural changes, planners recognized the need for technology to give life to stagnant artifacts and create entertaining, yet educational, experiences for visitors. “We have always competed with other museums like the Air and Space Museum,” explained Musteen. “We knew it was important for us to

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A dozen Sony SXRD projectors (below) are used to
project images 35 feet above the exhibit (left) to create the illusion of an underwater experience.
be able to keep the scientific integrity of our exhibits but present them in
ways that people would be attracted to, could engage in, and want to learn more about. And the technology we’ve incorporated helps us do that.”

The 11 separate exhibit areas located within the hall each feature various forms of technology. Visitors are immediately greeted, in fact, by a stunning HD video shot by famed underwater filmmaker Feodor Pitcairn, who used Sony HDCAM to capture extraordinary footage of ocean life in such places as the Caribbean,Galapagos Islands, Hawaii, and British Columbia.

Images in the 21-minute presentation, “Ocean Odyssey,” stretch over 250 feet around the hall, projected on medallions that are 35 feet above the floor. Twelve Sony SXRD 4K projectors, which have been installed in specially designed housings, use carefully placed mirrors to bounce the images onto the exhibit walls to create the illusion of an underwater experience.

In another room is an exhibit known as “Science on a Sphere.” This six-foot-wide globe is suspended in the air by airplane cable and rotates continuously while four short videos produced by Northern Light Productions give visitors the unique opportunity to experience views from the perspective of an astronaut hovering 22,000 miles above the Earth.

Four projectors and technology from NOAA take the footage, which is generated as a single image, and wrap it seamlessly around the globe as it rotates. The presentation features exclusive satellite data that is collected every day and converted into dramatic visuals that address such topics as ocean, currents, how the ocean has changed over time, and plate tectonics.

“The technology behind the exhibit is in 27 places around the world, but each is in a larger environment in which the projectors we use are a distance away from the globe,” said inventor Dr. Alexander MacDonald, who also runs NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Boulder, CO. “The projectors in this case had to be placed much closer to the globe, so we had to accommodate the shorter throw distance from the projector to the screen.”

According to Northern Light producer Tim Lay,

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“Science on a Sphere” combines videos with satellite data. the exhibit is innovative because the technology typically requires a museum guide to operate it. Because of the extremely high visitation levels, however, the program had to be adapted to play independently.

Other exhibits in which technology is a major player include “Deep Ocean Theater,” which features a 13-minute HD presentation by the History Channel, and “Ocean Today Kiosks,” which feature 32-inch plasma touch screens and 42-inch monitors. These displays include a variety of ocean imagery and video clips that cover recent discoveries and ocean life, along with computer generated maps that show everything from current ocean temperatures to wave heights to wind speed. Scrolling news reports — much like the ones seen on cable news networks — were incorporated.

But the various elements of technology would be of little use in Sant Ocean Hall, however, were it not for the dramatic footage. Northern Light Productions provided 11 media pieces for the hall.

“There is an extraordinary amount of content in the hall,” explained Lay, “and we felt there was a need to bring into motion some of the creatures that are depicted in the exhibit — so that they would be transformed from static representations to a complimentary motion depiction that would inspire visitors to revere and cherish the incredible resource that is the ocean.”


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