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Interactive Exhibits Used To Make Museums Exciting

Visitors are finding video walls, interactive tables illuminating

Many people may associate a trip to a museum with the words “look, but don’t touch.” That has changed in a big way as interactive exhibits—mainly wall displays or tables—take the place of rows of cases filled with artifacts. However, despite the popularity of interactive technologies, there is still a debate about whether they belong in museums.

by Art Kingdom

Microsoft’s Surface 2.0 interactive table Since the mid-1980s museums and other educational venues have been increasingly reaching out to their visitors (and drawing them in) with exhibits that educate through interaction. That is made possible by technological marvels employing large screen film projection, interactive video walls, and computers, touchscreen kiosks and a lot of useful information. It is not uncommon for a visitor to see the sharp contrast between a museum’s grand architecture and the colorful glow of screens in many sizes and shapes.

During the 19th century museums were considered storehouses of “curiosities,” and efforts to make museums more accessible started at the beginning of the 20th century when museum curators began offering more popular exhibition techniques. For doing that, curators were criticized for changing museums from institutions of higher learning, to venues of lowbrow entertainment.

The debate continues today, but now curators are dealing with a generation that has a short attention span and expects instant gratification. Nonetheless, technology has gained a foothold in museums that will not likely be dislodged mainly because it has made learning so much fun.

Museums now feature video walls with intensely colorful custom-made films projected through them, as well as small and large theaters. Increasingly, the images are in 3D and typical touchscreen exhibits can be a free-standing table, a kiosk, or a giant wall display. They feature LCD screens that have multiple points able to sense a museum-visitor’s touches or gestures.

Visitors now expect a touchscreen experience says Elizabeth Musteen, chief of multimedia at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Musteen recalls that the museum installed rudimentary interactive displays in the ’90s, which was enough at the time because computers fascinated the visitors. But now computers are old hat and kids expect fantastic graphics.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s ‘Tiny Drifters’ exhibit attracts youngsters who want to see the microscopic sea life. “Our interactives have to be really something different to get people to do them,” Musteen says. However, the museum cannot afford to compete with Sony PlayStation 3-caliber graphics, so the emphasis is on providing something special as far as educational content.

“We have become judicious on how many computer interactives we use because they are expensive to produce and we want to make sure they are effective and that they are used,” she said. Nonetheless, the museum has about 300 audio, visual displays of various types and complexity, serving 7.5 million visitors per year. “It really is a balance between what we can maintain, what is enough to be interesting, while drawing the people in and getting the message across and what crosses into gimmickry,” she explains.


When the Monterey Bay Aquarium decided it needed an interactive exhibit in an existing space and after it had Lindsay Digital develop the necessary software, it turned to Ideum of Santa Cruz, N.M. The aquarium decided to focus on microscopic sea life and the Tiny Drifters exhibit is the result of their collaboration.

“It was not a solution you could buy off the shelf and one of those things they we were not even sure could be done,” according to Chad Person, Ideum multitouch product manager, “We had to engineer it from the ground up.” One challenge was that there was only a 31-inch space between where the exhibit was to be placed and the adjacent concrete wall.

Through a giant mock-up of a magnifying glass, Tiny Drifters allows visitors to look into a drop of seawater and interact with 3D rendered images of sea life on a 7-foot multitouch wall. Microscopic plankton are seen in two times better-than-HD quality and appear on the screen via a computer driving two blended dVision 35 WQXGA XB LED projectors by Digital Projection that provide seamless pixelfree images.

The projectors hit surface mirrors to affect the blended image and there are 16 low-powered lasers around the perimeter of the screen to help track touches. The blending hardware is Digital Projection’s Fusion 3D. In addition, four infrared cameras were installed to see hundreds of touch points for visitors. Ideum used 10 millimeter HapticGlas, or microetched glass, to provide durability and reduce fingerprints. “The exhibit engages and educates people,” Eric Nardone, aquarium manager of interpretive media, says, “but since most people come to experience the animals it is like a side dish.” Nonetheless, the aquarium plans more multitouch experiences, including one that focuses on marine mammals.


In addition to custom-made video walls, Ideum offers a line of tables for use as interactive multi-user displays. Its MT55 was released earlier this summer to join the MT55 Pro. Both feature 55-inch screen displays with optical systems that support 32 simultaneous touch points, and a sheet of tempered glass—five millimeters thick—protects the interactive surface of the MT55 Platform. The 31-inch-tall table is integrated with Wireless-N Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ethernet, and hidden USB and HDMI ports. It also includes blue LED underlighting, integrated cooling and a modular base that can be bolted to the floor.

Microsoft now offers its Surface 2.0, a table with a 40-inch Samsung HD screen that is four inches thick, including the glass, PC and enclosure. Proprietary Microsoft technology named PixelSense allows the display to recognize fingers, hands and objects on the screen. The individual pixels in the display “see” what is touching the screen and the data is instantly processed and interpreted. The operating system is an embedded version of the 64-bit Windows 7 Professional, with its horsepower provided by the AMD Athlon II X2 Dual-Core processor 2.9 GHz paired with the AMD Radeon HD 6700M Series GPU.